Tag Archives: Volunteering

Liberating The Happy Valley Forest From Invaders

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Garlic Mustard, An Undesirable Ingredient

It was a covert ground-assault by a small group of dedicated resisters, led by Thomas Unrau of the NCC, on an invader to the perhaps not so Happy Valley.  I’d signed up to participate in a valiant effort to thwart the relentless advance of an intruder known to choke the life out of native populations, and arrived at our rendezvous point, resigned to the task.  Identified by its common and cleverly disguised name, the Garlic Mustard, (Alliaria petiolata) may sound like a harmless enemy, but sadly, once it establishes a root-hold, it quickly displaces native flowers and ground vegetation.


Like many other invasive species, the Garlic Mustard was originally introduced to North America, all be it naively, by early European settlers to the U.S.  As a wild edible, it is a nutritious green, high in vitamins A and C as well as several essential minerals.


However, as an unwanted guest, it spreads easily and releases a compound into the soil, that displaces and discourages root growth by other herbaceous plant species.  Native flowers such as Trilliums, Trout-lilies and Jack-in-the-pulpits that have evolved to flourish in the rich soils found under the shaded canopy of mature hardwood forests, find it difficult to overcome the aggressive, colonizing onslaught of Garlic Mustard.


Armed with nothing more than work gloves, garbage bags and a commitment to halt the advance of the invader on a few hundred square metres of the Happy Valley Forest, our team of enthusiastic, volunteer weekend-warriors headed deep into what has to be one of the most beautiful deciduous forests I’ve ever had the privilege of walking through.  A true gem on the Oak Ridges Moraine within Ontario’s Greenbelt.


The Nature Conservancy of Canada, (NCC) who own several sections of land within the Happy Valley Forest, is a Not For Profit private land conservation organization, dedicated to protecting and rehabilitating significant natural areas, and the flora and fauna species they sustain.  Since 1962, NCC and its partners have helped to protect more than 2.7 million acres (1.1 million hectares), from coast to coast to coast.


This may have been my first visit to the Happy Valley Forest, but it certainly won’t be my last.  With camera in hand and tripod over my shoulder, I intend to return to spend time to recharge my soul, to photograph the awesome beauty and to do my part to protect and polish this priceless jewel.


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This Collection of photographs was produced in the Happy Valley Forest, on the Oak Ridges Moraine, in Ontario’s Greenbelt.

What More Can I Do?

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There are two kinds of people: those that grumble “Haven’t I done enough?” and those that question, “What more can I do?”

In early December 2014, I was invited to photograph a group of young adults… OK I have trouble writing that description, because this group of people although chronologically youngerrrr…. than me, demonstrate the maturity and self awareness that should be envied by many, twice and thrice their ages.

The Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC), annually accepts nominations for Global-Changemaker Youth-Ambassador Awards, and recognizes a select group of nominees, at a reception to mark International Development Week. The 2015 event was held on February 3rd, in the Rotunda of Metro Hall in Toronto, and showcased a photographic exhibit by Allan Lissner Transformations: Stories of Partnership, Resilience and Positive Change in Peru. This collaborative photojournalism project is intended to increase dialogue, and further understanding of International Partnerships that address complex global challenges. You will find all the details describing this exhibit and where you can view it, at http://ocic.on.ca/transformations2015

OK, enough with all the hard facts, what I really need to get off my chest is how inspiring these opportunities are to me.

As a photographer I have had the great privilege of witnessing, contributing to, and participating in several great causes. Whether it was accompanying a plane-full of children participating in a Sunshine Foundation sponsored-trip to Disney World, my work for CUSO International or now meeting this great group of young people, I’m inspired to contemplate the potential we all have for doing good. It’s not enough to say we’re good people because we do no harm – and indifference counts as harm – but to actually apply the natural talents, which we all posses, to make a positive difference in the quality-of-life, of others. Investing time and applying creative problem-solving in the Non-Profit sector, benefits all of us.

By being curious and aware of the needs of The Other, we help to improve the standard of living of those less fortunate, where ever they may be and regardless of gender. Improving health and basic education standards, unleashes the human potential by helping to reduce crime and allows all of us to focus on opportunities, beforehand, out of reach. Hope is priceless and the dividends are immeasurable.

Volunteering isn’t something we do because we have time to spare, we do it because someone has to stretch out a helping hand. Ask yourself, “If not me , then who? If not now, then when?”

My personal congratulations to all the inspiring and very worthy 2015Global-Changemaker Youth-Ambassador Awards, recipients for demonstrating a willingness to put their passionate words into actions.

While you’re here, why don’t you leave a Comment and visit my Galleries.

Contact me to discuss your photographic needs.

This Collection of Environmental Portraits was produced prior to the Awards Presentations.

La Huamanga Turistica

For those of you that caught my previous posting, today I’m going to walk along the sunny side of the street. Our days typically revolve around scheduling interviews with volunteers and their beneficiaries, and the rest of the time is ours. My priority, after finishing our interviews, is always to download the flash cards to my Epson P5000 Viewer then to my laptop, process my images using Lightroom and finally generate a backup onto a small 2.5 External Hard Drive. That gives me three copies of the photos, which means that other then when I’m travelling between communities, there is always a copy somewhere that I’m not, with an extra level of redundancy for safe measure.Nothing would be worse than to spend all this time, effort and money and have the images, either stolen or lost, due a technical malfunction with any one of those three devices. So, after taking care to secure my work, I’m free to stroll the streets, soak in the sounds and of course photograph whatever catches my fancy.

It was while strolling the streets of Huamanga, Peru that I was approached by a young man, who upon seeing my rather large Nikon camera, cozyed up to talk photography. I had been warned about people approaching on one side to distract me, while another would sneak-in on the blind side to liberate anything of value, so I casually secured my bag and tripod and politely answered his questions, but it quickly became obvious that he had a sincere interest, without any ulterior motives.

It turns out that John – ya I know but it isn’t that uncommon for people to have English names because parents will name their children after well known movie and TV actors, and as it turns out his full Given Name, is Johnn Rhys – who at only eighteen and with a high school diploma, rents a small office in the beautifully restored Centro Turistico Cultural San Cristobal,where he has a small graphic design business, producing signage, brochures and restaurant menus for local businesses.

Most of the architecture in Huamanga, and the Centro Turistico is no exception, follows the southern Spanish formula of an austere fa’ade facing the street, with a very large, solid door through which one passes into a sun-drenched Andalucian courtyard. It’s like stepping into another, secret world where lazy cats stretch out on cool stones and the trickling water from a simple fountain sooth the commotion just steps away.

John’s space although on the dark side, has just what you would expect to see in any similar business back in Canada a desk for his computer, monitor, printer and book-case to store reference materials and office supplies. He also has enough room for a small studio to photograph table-top product or portraits. I’d be tickled pink to have his space as a studio / office. I’m viscerally inspired by well designed spaces and beautiful architecture and just being on the second floor of this cloistered courtyard, made my head spin.

Although John does have competition, when I asked him how he manages, he emphasized the importance of Customer Service, noting that it’s not a concept that is ingrained in to the Peruvian culture, but that helps distinguish him. What ever it takes. Not a bad philosophy for everything in life.

We spent around three hours together talking and walking around with our cameras, taking photographs and comparing notes, after which we returned to one of the handful of little patios in that beautiful Andalucian courtyard, where I invited him to lunch. Although not nearly as poor as Bolivia, the exchange rate in Peru is around one Canadian Dollar to two and half Soles, making it very inexpensive to travel here. I of course am not travelling with Canadian Dollars but rather with Soles, just as every other CUSO Volunteer, but we none-the-less, both had a wonderful home cooked meal, and by that I mean that it didn’t come out of a bucket or re-heated frozen package, for approximately $3.00 CDN each, while sitting in that priceless, beautiful courtyard.

Annie and I stayed in Huamanga for three days and three nights, in yet another beautifully restored building, come the Santa Maria Hotel. Nothing luxurious, but quaint and appropriate under the circumstances in any location. We arrived on the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and everywhere we went we could see that preparations for Holy Week, were in full swing. Soon there wouldn’t be a vacant room for rent, anywhere in town and beginning on the Thursday, small processions leading up to the big event on Good Friday, began to meander through the narrow streets, at some point passing through the main square, La Plaza de Armas.

However, there was another nationally significant event scheduled for Friday night that no one could ignore, a FIFA World Cup qualifying game being played in Lima, between Peru and their arch rivals Chile. Annie and I arranged to meetup with a few other volunteers in the central square and then made our way to a local watering hole, Restaurante Nino, to catch the game. I didn’t have a favourite team in the contest, but I thought it prudent to cheeeeeer and ohhhhh in tune with my hosts. However, it wasn’t long before I too was infected by the ebb and flow of the game and grimacing at the near misses in favour, and sighing in relief at the close calls against. The final score was Peru 1 Chile 0 and everyone went home happy.

In the three short days that we were there, Huamanga grew on me and Saturday rolled around way to soon. I became familiar with the streets around La Plaza de Armas, had been charmed by a handful of the townsfolk and wanted desperately to spend more time photographing the architecture and street scenes.

Saturday, woke up warm and sunny and since our flight didn’t leave until mid-afternoon, I hurried back outside for one last walkabout. I wasn’t disappointed. Along all the balconies surrounding the main square, were hung intricately, handmade, palm-leaf motifs in anticipation of Holy Week and the plaza had definitely taken on a festive mood. Walking about were hawkers selling everything from balloons to religious trinkets, and sunglasses to windup flying-birds-of-paradise. An overdose of sights and sounds, but what caught my attention most, was a line of woman in traditional folk dress, strung along the west side of the plaza making fresh ice-cream… by hand. What a send off. I couldn’t resist, so after discreetly photographing some of the woman, I shuffled over to try some for myself. It was delicious.

Till we meet again.

Bolivia – Faces

Difficult to believe, for me anyway, that I’m closing in on one year since my return from Bolivia. Despite the passing of twelve months, memories of the experience haven’t faded much. The first few weeks after my return were taken up with all the Christmas preparations and immediately after ward, I had to pick through a few thousand images to edit down and process the bank of photographs from my assignment, before passing them along to CUSO International.

For anyone reading about my trip to Bolivia for the first time, in the dyeing days of the summer of 2011, I had the wonderfully good fortune to be chosen by CUSO, to participate in a project to visit one of several countries where they provide Development Aid. As one of six teams of journalist and photographers sent to various points around the world, I was assigned to Bolivia, where we visited several projects to meet with CUSO beneficiaries and volunteers and to document their projects, through words and photographs.

I learned a lot from the experience, in terms of packing equipment, scheduling visits and assertiveness to maximize the days and opportunities available in a relatively short period of time. Looking back through the images, a year later, I find that I’m able to be less critical of what I produced and take pride in what was accomplished

As photographers, we are a pretty insecure and self critical lot. That probably works in our favour, when it comes to pushing ourselves to do better next time, always searching for a unique perspective and turning on the charm to befriend a subject, on their turf.

I’ve added a Gallery of images in my Photo Essays that I’ve given the Title: Bolivia Faces. These are my favourite People Photos from that trip and maybe as soon as next week I’ll add another Gallery: Bolivia Places. Kinda has a nice ring to it don’t you think, Some of the images maybe familiar from my Blog Posts while in the field, but regardless, they are worth gathering together for a second look. Enjoy and don’t hesitate to provide any feedback: good, bad or ugly.

Woman entrepreneurs.

Hasta La Vista Bolivia

You may have thought that I’d fallen off the face of the earth, and at times I wish I had of, but nope, I’m back in Toronto. Dropped in to Pearson International two weeks ago, instead, and have been trying to get up to speed: returning telephone calls, answering E-mails and opening and sorting Post Mail. I was without daily access to the internet during my last week and a half in Bolivia, so Blogging let alone uploading images would’ve been impossible. Still, I knew that there were some final observations I wanted to pass along and certainly Post Posting Blues that would need airing.

The Large Cities: OK, we only got to La Paz and Santa Cruz. The other two large cities of note are Sucre and Cochabamba.Oddly, returning to La Paz felt like I was returning home. I know, I know, I was only there for a week before heading down to Santa Cruz, but what can I say. As wonderful as it was to spend three weeks in the warm; no, hot and humid, embrace of that Amazonian City, I find La Paz far more interesting from a photographic point of view. You just can’t beat the steep and winding streets for interesting compositions. Also, there is far more colour than in Santa Cruz, as well as a variety of buildings of different heights, the surrounding mountains and the quality of light at either end of the day is just amazing. If only they would do something about the air pollution, I could live with the constant honking of car horns.

The Overhead Sun: I know this might sound so what to those of you that have traveled lots, but one thing I observed the very first day I arrived in La Paz in late October, was that this was the first place and time in my life where I’d been anywhere where the noon day sun was almost directly overhead, on it’s way south for the summer. Also, although there are many variables, such as altitude and geography, it takes a little getting use to the notion that it gets colder the further south one goes, rather than north, like I’ve always been use to. The night sky was amazing and I had the opportunity, while in San Antonio, to locate the Southern Cross.

Strangest Experience: There I was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a colonial Spanish city, and walked into an Irish Pub, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication playing over the in-house loud speakers, and ordered a Lasagna de Carne, but the saving grace was the cold Huari, a Bolivian Beer. No Steam Whistle, but just as welcome.

Safety and Security: I was warned about openly carrying my camera in plain view, in certain neighborhoods in La Paz and told outright that Santa Cruz was a very dangerous place. Now I wasn’t about to outright dismiss the advice and certainly it pays to be prudent, however, and this may be naive of me, but I honestly think that people over react. There is a fear of the other, which at times I think is more dangerous than the perceived threat. I’m a photographer, the whole point is to have my camera out.’ Keeping it in my camera bag or worse in the hotel room, is pointless. I’m always careful and aware of my surroundings, even in my home town of Toronto.

When walking around, I try to be discreet and cradle the camera in my arms to disguise it, but I watch people’s eyes as they walk by and I clearly see their eyebrows go up. I was told that it wasn’t just a matter of keeping my hands firmly on my equipment, but that I could have someone pull a knife on me. Now that would be frightening, but fortunately, I didn’t experience anything remotely threatening.

No doubt the language was a huge advantage for me, but generally I found people to be friendly, if not always the greatest ambassadors for their cities. Try and get directions and it seems that no one knows where anything is, not even the taxi drivers. On my second to last night in La Paz, I was looking for a restaurant where I could order Llama, that’s the relative to the camel not the jolly old monk in the orange Kasaya. Anyway, I stopped in front of the Plaza Hotel, on the main pedestrian strip, Paseo del Prado, to ask two policeman where I could find the Marbeilla, which I had been told should be close by. Well they didn’t have a clue. I could’ve been asking them for directions to Casa Loma. I walked a block and a half further and there it was. It was on their beat!!

Racism: I think this goes back to a point I made earlier about a fear of the other. Although I never witnessed anything overt, there is some internal resentment between different indigenous groups. Also, be it politically driven or not, I think that some people don’t quite get that the tourist is bringing in money.I add politically motivated, because there is currently a Government led my Evo Morales that likes to play the evil foreigner card. Anyone arriving from abroad and wanting to invest, must want to steal what’s ours. Maybe a truly democratic political system with checks and balances would go a long way to prevent, if not completely avoid the corruption that can lead to stealing of resources for personal gain, so enough with the broad brush.

Things I Didn’t Lose: My Notebook in the small restaurant in Copacabana, my Camera on the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca and my Monopod on the bus returning from Copacabana.

Things I Did Lose: My Red Baseball Cap and grey Hoody, or what as a child, we called a Kangaroo, because of the ya the pouch. Actually, I didn’t lose it, so much as someone liberated it.

Challenges: No one there is follicly challenged, so I stood out when sans Red Toque, despite being vertically challenged, like most paisanos.

Well there you have it, some last thoughts, although I doubt they will be the last I think about Bolivia, the people I met and the wonderful experiences I had. OK, one last thought, it’s a long flight, the air fare can be expensive (try the off season) but once you get there, and traveling with Canadian, Australian or U.S. $$, the British or the Euro, it’s very inexpensive to eat, move around and visit some of nature’s awesome sites. Oh Ya! Learn to drive a Standard Transmission and get your Drivers License, you never know when you’ll be asked to take the wheel.

Some parting shots of the chaotic knots, the colourful buildings in La Paz and a self-portrait. The rest will have to be face to face.

Buenas noches Illimani.