“Gringo Trails”: What Are Travelers Doing To The Places They Visit?

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” –- Agent Smith, “The Matrix

Agent Smith could have been talking about the “morning after” footage in “Gringo Trails,” a new documentary by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella. The camera wanders down Thailand’s Haad Rin Beach after the Full Moon Party. The beach is littered with trash — water bottles, clothing, plastic bags -– and crashing partiers. Garbage sloshes up on the sand in the gentle surf. This beautiful stretch of sand, once completely unknown to travelers, is now punctuated with rubbish. The film illustrates some hard truths about mass travel, but I found it especially painful to watch this segment. It was embarrassing to the see the awful disregard for this once beautiful place. And it was sad, a weighty head-shaking sadness that left me questioning the results of my own backpacker traveling days. Was I this unaware? Did I spread the virus?
“Gringo Trails” looks at the impact backpackers have on places like Haad Rin. How were these places “discovered,” and how did they change as a result? What effect does the influx of tourists — the kind who insist they are not tourists — have on the environment and on the people? Are these travelers even aware that they leave their fingerprints all over the economy, the culture and the ecosystem of the places they visit?

Vail and Estrella aren’t issuing a blanket indictment of backpacker travel — Vail was a backpacker herself in the early 1980s. Her message is more educational. “When this type of travel started, we were completely unaware of the implications. But now, 20, 30 years later, we know. We know what happens, and we can share this information so it doesn’t happen in other places.”

The movie opens with the story of Yossi Ginsberg, an Israeli backpacker who was lost in the jungle near the village of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. In 1985, Ginsberg wrote a book about his misadventures and how he was rescued. Rurrenabaque had been a small hub for adventure travelers, but Ginsberg’s book launched an influx of Israelis seeking their own version of that adventure.

The travelers in “Gringo Trails” seem to think of Ginsberg’s story as an amusement park ride, as something they should be able to access. An Israeli girl says, “Everybody wants to experience the life of the jungle . . . to have a little touch like in the book.” “I’m Indiana Jones,” says a Swedish backpacker from the seat of a crowded motor canoe. Ginsberg was lost. His life was in danger; he was lucky to be saved. And now travelers — inspired by his story — can pretend they are having a facsimile of his experience. With meals and camping and guides included.

The movie takes us to a number of different destinations, showing the change that backpackers bring when they open new regions to increasingly organized tourism. We see the archetypal travelers we’ve met in our own adventures: the traveler vs. tourist snobs, the beach hippies, the partiers. There are stories from Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Holly Morris and Prince Sangay Wangchuk about the tension between travelers’ values and the native values of the places we visit. Vail and Estrella take us around the world and show us, in archival footage shot over many years, exactly what we’ve done to the planet by being everywhere on it.

“The idea of adventure, to be in the jungle and surviving is an idea that spans a lot of different cultures, but most people don’t take it to the extreme,” says Vail. “They like the idea that they’re having this adventure, that they’re somehow surviving in the jungle . . . but I don’t think they think it through. They don’t really want to have that experience. People conflate the images. . . . it’s the completion of all these stories in the media that affect what our destination perspectives are and what we’re looking for.”

There’s a painful tension between the desire to have a great adventure — to share that adventure — and to protect a place as it is when we find it. In “Gringo Trails,” Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and an early advocate of ecotourism, tells the story of “finding” Haad Rin in 1979. He admonished some fellow travelers, Germans, “Whatever you do, don’t tell people about this place.” In 2013, an estimated 30,000 people attended the Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. Christ’s Germans may not have told, but the story got out.

In “Gringo Trails,” Vail travels around the world to show how travelers are affected by the romance of packaged travel stories in the media as well as through word of mouth. Adventure becomes a commodity. “It’s good value,” says Lina Brocchieri about her excursion to untouristed and exotic Timbuktu. She’s presumably speaking of the cocktail party caché she gains in mentioning her travels to this place so weighted with the extraordinary. But the reality of her experience is sobering and enlightening. Her presence makes no sense to the locals, and she begins to wonder why she is there.

“Romanticization is writ large . . . versus the reality of how people are living, the poverty,” says Vail, speaking of our preconceived notions as travelers. “I was hoping the film would have people think before they go.”

The film offers up some suggestions but no easy solutions to the change we invoke by merely being present in these faraway places. Ecotourism. Government regulation. A discussion of Bhutan’s visa program shows how the country has chosen to restrict travel to protect its cultural heritage. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with us as travelers. Our “high-value” experiences cost us money, but what’s the expense to the places we choose to visit? How do we reconcile our romantic images of the world with the truth of what our presence in those places means?

Adventure travelers and backpackers are often the front line. We crack these places open to the rest of the world. At our worst, we are looking for easy social mores, cheap booze, accessible drugs and a line on our résumés. How strange that we should fall into the role of de facto ambassadors for these places. But at our best, that’s what we are — ambassadors. “Gringo Trails” leaves the traveler shouldering the weight of that responsibility. How are we going to interpret the stories we hear, and what stories are we going to tell?

“I like seeing the changes,” says Vail, “in how people apply what they have learned. You can do something. Instead of just traveling through and gaining experiential capital, we can give back. It’s middle-class, upper-middle-class, travelers, if they say they’re on a budget or not. So there’s disparity between classes and cultures. Now, I think a lot of people are coming back are doing something.”

“It’s a fine line between the joy and the incredible experience of travel with the reality of local lives. I hope we can enjoy the film, think about why we love to travel and also, think responsibility. The hope is that it’s opening a conversation. This is a tremendously important topic. And it’s urgent, given that we’re all over the place in the world.”

“Gringo Trails” premieres on October 19, at 8:30 p.m. in the American Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival. There’s a screening at North America’s largest environment film festival, the Planet In Focus Environmental Film Festival in Toronto November 21-24. Additional screening dates will be available on the Gringo Trails website.

The Drive-In Movie Theater Photography Project

drive-in
Copyright Craig Deman

Today we have an interview with a very interesting travel photographer. Craig Deman has done a number of photography projects, including The Drive-In Project, a look at abandoned drive-in movie theaters across America. Since today is the 80th anniversary of the drive-in theater, we decided to have him as a guest.

Welcome to Gadling, Craig! Tell us a little about the project and what attracts you to abandoned drive-ins.

You know how some people can remember many details about their childhood and teenage years and some people can only remember a few? I fall into the latter category. Even though I might not remember a great amount of the details of my childhood, I do have vivid memories of my earliest experiences at drive-in movie theaters. I remember the first movie my mom took my sister and me to at a drive-in. Can you say … “Supercalifragilisticexxpialidocious”? I remember the names of the guys I was with in my friend Mike’s trunk when we snuck into our local drive-in. Without question, I remember the details of the first girl I was “with” at a drive-in movie theater!

Today, approximately 90 percent of drive-ins are closed from their peak in the late 1950s. As a lover of architectural and landscape photography, drive-in movie theaters represent defining moments and passion for me. The distressed and decaying wood of a ticket booth, overgrown and unwieldy shrubs/trees where cars once parked, matched by the enormous scale of a screen tower all together scream as loudly to me today as if I was back in the day we laughed with joy upon successfully gaining entrance to the drive-in while sequestered in my buddy’s trunk.

Putting it simply – it’s the raw emotion, still present, from almost 50 years ago, that attracts me to abandoned drive-ins. A lot of people respond to the imagery of my Drive-in Project by referring to it as “haunting.” I’m good with that, as long as those same people’s definition of the word haunting includes “Mary Poppins” and getting busy.

%Slideshow-577%When you were doing this project, did you get to meet any folks who used to go to these drive-ins?

The people I met from Alabama to Arizona or from Nevada to New York were universally eager and open to sharing their personal experiences at drive-in movie theaters. People expressed a breadth of emotions when describing individual feelings they held in their memories about drive-ins they had visited.

Let me tell you about a couple of folks I met. I was shooting the Lake Estes Drive-in (Colorado), when I met the owners John and Sharon, in order to gain access to the projection booth. When we entered the projection booth, my eyes opened as wide as a kid being offered candy, as this was the first and only abandoned projector booth that I came across that still had a projector in it. It was dusty and needed a tune up to be sure, but it was a beautiful hunk of metal. All I could think about was what an organically perfect interior setting this was for my series. The rawness of the setting evoked such visceral emotions.

John and Sharon are planning to redevelop the land where the drive-in was located over 20 years earlier. They want a “good home” for the beautiful hunk of metal and offered me the projector. As of this interview, I haven’t figured out where I could house it. I’m still thinking about it, to the dismay of some in my family.

I came across something unique when I was researching drive-ins to shoot in Tennessee. Brothers Ed and John grew up going to the Moonglo Drive-in located in Pulaski. They own a dealership and loved going to the Moonglo when they were growing up. They loved it so much that as adults they bought the property and built their car dealership around the Moonglo’s projection booth and screen.

It was too good pass up for this project, no matter how far I had to drive to get there. Ed and John are great guys and thanks to them, I captured some wonderful images. While they’re concentrating on growing their dealership, I don’t believe it would take too much to get them to consider firing up the Moonglo as an operating drive-in movie theater.

Do you have any tips for budding photographers who want to take their own images of abandoned Americana?

Yes, I call it the three Ps – plan well, be patient as well as persistent. The Drive-in Project was shot over a four-year period in ten different states. Living in California, I traveled thousands of miles to shoot 80 percent of the drive-ins within the series. Each and every location deserved to have painstaking thought put into each image and that’s what they each received. If the lighting wasn’t right at the time I was there, I slept in the rental car, hoping the next morning would bring better light.

The three Ps came into play often during those four years, but nowhere more so than the drive-in located in Commerce, Georgia. Initially, I couldn’t even find it. So many years have passed that the drive-in is now engulfed by a full-blown forest that has hidden the remnants of the screen and ticket booth from the main road.

After finally locating the screen through the forest, I loaded up my equipment and began to hike out to setup my camera, a Mamiya RZ67. Suddenly, I felt this incredibly sharp pain in my right foot. I had stepped on a 4-inch nail that pierced my shoe and was now embedded in the ball of my foot. I said to myself, “I have come this far, I have to keep going and get the shot.”

I loosened my shoe and pulled the nail out, hiking further into the forest to a clearing where the small remaining piece of the screen was visible. As I’m setting my tripod up, I heard this rustling and am joined by two Georgia State Troopers. The troopers informed me that I was trespassing on private property, but I’d done my research and I knew the name and contact info of the property owner who had given me permission to shoot there. The troopers ended up being nice guys and were quite interested in my project. They left me to do my work and just as I was feeling good about covering the three Ps until one of the troopers, as they were walking away, said, “Watch out for snakes around here!”

What’s next for you?

I’ve started a project that involves a 1950s “Normandie Starline Mod 1″ beauty parlor chair, which I have named Marilyn. Marilyn has a beautiful chrome dryer top with a pink chair with an ashtray in the left arm and a swing handle that lifts the leg rest. Marilyn will be photographed in various environments juxtaposed against outdoor landscapes, models inside my studio and street scenes.

The name of my new project is: “Road Trip With Marilyn (RTWM).” Although I am only about 20 percent into my RTWM project, I have found that Marilyn helps me in a couple of ways as a photographer. Marilyn is a great icebreaker; her physical appearance attracts and pulls people into the space she is placed in. People are anxious to play with her and pose with her chrome dryer top. I’m excited about hitting the road with Marilyn and capturing an eclectic series of photographs. Maybe we can hook up with you, Sean, while you’re on one of your upcoming adventures?

You, me, and Marilyn in the Sudan! That would make for some interesting photos. Thanks for joining us today!

Jim Henson Will Get His Own Gallery In NYC’s Museum Of The Moving Image

Jim Henson
Eva Rinaldi

The Museum of the Moving Image in New York City has announced it will build a special gallery devoted to the art of Jim Henson.

Jim Henson’s family has donated nearly 400 puppets, costumes, props, and other objects to the museum. They include items from all of his major projects such as “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Dark Crystal” and others. The biggest stars included in the collection are Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Elmo, Ernie, Bert, Count von Count, Gobo Fraggle, the Swedish Chef, and Statler and Waldorf.

The 2,200 square-foot exhibition space will also feature storyboards, scripts, and video clips.

The new gallery will open in the winter of 2014-15. It will cost $5 million to build and has already received $2.75 million for the City of New York.

VIDEO: Jerusalem In 1896


Jerusalem is one of those cities that clings to you long after you leave it. The mix of faiths, the musky scents of the markets, the muezzin’s call … once you’ve been there you can’t forget it.

It’s prominent in the imaginations of many who haven’t even been there, so it’s no surprise it was one of the first travel destinations filmed in the first years of motion pictures. In 1896, a crew from the studio of Auguste and Louis Lumière headed to Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to film its sights and people in what might be the very first foreign travel film.

Like all films in those days it was silent – the narration in this video was added decades later – but much of the spirit of Jerusalem shines through.

The Lumière brothers of France were pioneers in motion pictures. Their American rival was Thomas Edison, who was soon making his own travel pictures. He convinced transportation companies to give his film crews free rides to far-flung places such as the American West, China and Japan. Edison was not only an engineering genius; he was a master of marketing and saw films as a good way to get some press trips.

Video Of The Day: ‘Samsara’ Captures Imagery From Across The Globe


Today’s Video of the Day is an exclusive clip from “Samsara,” a new movie featuring mesmerizing scenes from more than 20 countries. Filmed over a period of five years, the footage covers sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites and natural wonders, demonstrating that human’s life cycle mirrors that of the rest of the planet. The film’s title is a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life.”

Although it is a documentary, Samsara has no dialogue or descriptive text. Instead, the viewer is encouraged to find inspiration from the images on screen and musical score in order to make their own interpretations. Director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson sought out to make the film in order to capture the “elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives.” In other words, the filmmakers hoped to encapsulate the essence of a subject, not just its physical presence. They traveled across the globe in order to make the film, including the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, a village in Ethiopia, Chateau de Versailles in France, and a doll factory in Japan.

Samsara will be shown on the big screen in select cities starting Friday, August 24. For a full schedule of screenings in the United States, click here. You can also watch the theatrical trailer after the jump.