Notes from the Road: Interview with Erik Gauger

Erik GaugerErik Gauger

Notes from the Road is a recent addition to TravelBlogs, but it’s been around since 1999. The site combines Erik Gauger’s stunning photography – shot on a traditional large-format film camera – with his engaging stories about people and places.

These days, the site is attracting quite a bit of attention, thanks in part to Erik’s detailed coverage of a small Caribbean island’s struggle with an American golf course developer.

TravelBlogs caught up with Erik to talk more about travel, photography and the Guana Cay conflict.

You mention on your site that you often travel to ordinary places. What is it about ordinary places that appeals to you?

Sometimes in travel writing, there is an emphasis on the exotic – the farthest place. I am all for this idea, and I love the travel writer who can make alive a place I have never heard of. But I am an amateur travel writer, and I travel on a budget.

‘Ordinary places’ to Americans are the suburbs, the Midwest, our flat wetlands, our small towns. We know these places well, and our popular culture uses these places as symbols of the ordinary. But I’ve found the extraordinary in places we perceive as ordinary.

I believe that the idea of discovery and awe in travel isn’t increased by how far the airplane flies. In an age of high gas prices and talk about carbon footprints, I think this is an empowering idea for travelers – the excitement and magic of travel exists around the bend.

You can go to Madagascar on a steep budget and have a terrifically organized tour, and see things like never before. But I believe that the idea of discovery and awe in travel isn’t increased by how far the airplane flies. In an age of high gas prices and talk about carbon footprints, I think this is an empowering idea for travelers – the excitement and magic of travel exists around the bend.

Is part of reason you go to ordinary places a distaste for destinations tailored to tourists?

I don’t have a distaste for destinations tailored to tourists at all. Rather the opposite, I cheer them on. You know, us Americans get about two weeks of vacation a year. We just want to make this short time together worthwhile, to reconnect with our family, relax. We travel writers have the opportunity to be arrogant about the ‘authenticity’ of our travel experiences and to dish on those more planned, comfortable travel experiences. But I never want to be that person, I don’t disparage anyone their right to reconnect with their family and drink a rum punch.

But there is a side of the travel and tourism development industry which I dislike, and as an amateur travel writer, it’s my obligation to take this element to task – newspapers don’t have branch offices in Nicaragua, only travel writers can report on the dangers the travel industry poses to cultures and places.

There are a lot of places around the world which have suffered at the hands of big, foreign developments which pay little respect to the local culture, the local environment and in fact often try to duplicate the comforts of the urban west in place of the local style and customs. These are the all-inclusives of the Caribbean, the golf mega-developments of the Pacific, the super-hotels of the Mediterranean and Central America.

I was recently in the Dominican Republic and witnessed the effects of the all-inclusive development atmosphere first-hand. There are huge parts of the coast that are like graveyards for yesterday’s failed mega-developments. The caterpillar tractors are still there, the unfinished hotels like skeletons on the coast.

In Punta Cana, the mega-developments rob their guests of any experience that has anything to do with the Dominican Republic. It is the Las Vegas strip with a beach. My sense was that many people felt trapped, like they wanted to get out and see the country, but couldn’t. Others fell into the trap of the all-inclusive, quickly learning to ask the staff to attend to their every whim – demanding food, complaining about the service, staying indoors at the pool or the buffet.

I also visited a development that is lauded as the opposite of the mega-development. A family run eco-lodge in Nicaragua where literally everything is made locally, and everything goes back into the local economy, and everything is sustainable. It is a place called Morgan’s Rock, and the attention to detail on every single sustainable issue is a model for how developments should be built in the future – places like this are always so much more lovely than those cold all-inclusives. The idea is that tourism development must add to the local culture and environment, not defy it. It must empower the locals in their entrepreneurialism, while celebrating their land and culture. I am always for the side of development that brings jobs, but if it brings jobs at the expense of the environment, it’s just another skeleton coast in the works. These places are real – there are many places in the Caribbean which were once poor and agrarian. Tourism came, the island made economic advances, but the development destroyed the island’s ecosystems, and then the tourism stopped, and the people were poor again, but also their island was not the beautiful place it used to be.

You write that you think travel writing is “the most wide open non-fiction template on Earth”. Who are some travel writers who you think really illustrate this?

My favorite travel writers do not always consider themselves travel writers. When an author of history, science, food or the environment, for example, gets up and travels to write about their subject, is it travel writing? I think so. David Quammen, for his ability to bring biology alive and science alive right in their native elements. Elizabeth Royte, who makes her subjects, and their subject matter, alive. Paul Theroux, for his endless ability to describe people. Andrew Sullivan, who can weave controversy and travel together into a thoughtful yarn. Edward Marriott, for never romanticizing the exotic. There are so many – I like unique accounts by people who are not just travelers, but maybe orchid collectors, or educators, or ornithologists.

You operate with quite a unique photographic set-up, using a large format print film camera. What made you decide to use that kind of traditional camera, rather than going digital?

I am sometimes amazed by people’s reactions to my use of a 4×5 camera. I first started mentioning the type of camera that I use almost as an apology for not having more photographs of people, movement, animals. In the world of blogs, editors sometimes seem almost repulsed by my not using a digital camera, as if I am holding back on the world’s greatest technology, to my own ignorant detriment.

The fact is, I love the advancements of the digital camera, and I carry one in my backpack now, mostly to capture wildlife, document something for later review, and, increasingly, for people shots.

The 4×5 accomplishes my photographic objectives better than any other camera can. I demand the highest level of clarity and sharpest grain. A large format camera has a film surface which makes it like a 500 mexapixel digital camera, and the optics for these cameras are outstanding. But the true benefits of the large format camera come into play in the field. The camera’s simplicity makes it ideal for capturing landscapes. For one, it doesn’t fail in extreme temperatures. And more important, you have perspective control, and you can use the relationship between the front and back of the camera to solve depth of field issues in ways no modern camera will likely ever be able to achieve. It’s kind of like the Mujahidin in Afghanistan. They probably admire these amazing American guns, but they can only use the old Russian kalashnikovs, because of their practicality in the field.

Great BasinGreat Basin, USA: Large format cameras are ideal for landscape photography. By Erik Gauger: Used with permission.

When I observe other travelers with cameras, sometimes I see their use of them as a kind of crutch. Their faces are always in that viewfinder – the digital camera really enables this kind of behavior – it feels like they are missing out on an experience in lieu of bringing back a very long and laborious slideshow to bore their friends. I want to tell them to put the camera away and talk to their wife – when that one extraordinary moment comes, spend time crafting the photograph to perfection.

With a large format camera, every photograph requires a five dollar expense and about fifteen minutes of preparation. This keeps the camera in the backpack all day. It’s assembled only once or twice a day.

One theme that you’re quite passionate about is the topic of development in Great Guana Cay. For the uninitiated, could you tell us a bit more about the Guana Cay and Bimini Bay conflict?

Before the Great Guana Cay incident, I often wrote in Notes from the Road that travel writers have an obligation to write about what is really happening in the places they are writing about. I want to read about the funny things that happens to the author. I want to read about that accommodating hotel. I want to read about that delicious margarita – sometimes. But what if that special place packed away on that faraway beach is suddenly about to be paved over into a theme park, at the objections of the people who live there?

To me, it is the quintessential travel story. It pits poor fishermen in a traditional community against legions of foreign businessmen and billions in investment, and a government whose hands are tied by the hotel industry.

Do I write about the margarita again? I was advocating that travel writers should welcome the controversy, bring alive these places by bringing us the drama.

But then, ironically, I was tested by my own talk.

I had grown up knowing this very small island in the Bahamas called Great Guana Cay. I had dived there many times, teaching myself underwater photography. The northern half of the island was undeveloped, and once, my mother and I were stranded there after our boat’s motor gave out. We had to cross through the interior of the island and make it to the former Disney cruise stopover, which had been abandoned.

We found the caretaker, who was very helpful in getting us help for our boat. But during our stay there, I saw things I wasn’t supposed to see. Although Disney shut down their operation on this island, the dolphins they kept in pens were still there, very visibly scarred and unhealthy. And the place was a mess, just left there to rot away. People were saying that the dredging project to get the cruise ship near the island was responsible for all that mysterious coral dying off the island. Guana Cay has the most spectacular coral reef in the Northern Bahamas, and its tourism industry is a sort of cottage diving industry, based on this reef.

I wrote about the Disney incident for Notes from the Road, but then I found out that a 585 mansion golf mega-development would be built on the island, with a manicured golf course and a marina, which would be blasted from the mangroves. Mangroves, of course, are important for barrier islands like Great Guana Cay for many reasons. They are integral to the health of the island’s fishery, and to the coral reef. The mangroves also protect the island from hurricanes, and the animals that live in these twisted marine forests provide sustenance for the native community that has lived their continuously for 200 years.

Writing about Disney was easy, because I had experienced the issue first hand. But now, I was the only travel writer who was knowledgeable about this new issue facing this same property. One side of me was saying – you don’t have time for this, and this is too obscure an issue for your readers. And another side of me was saying – this is your issue, and this is the travel writer’s obligation. You cannot avoid this, especially since you said it yourself. You are the only person who will ever have the opportunity to bring this issue out of the Bahamas, and into the international spotlight.

In a few weeks, I was hooked. I had interviews with scientists lined up who had been my childhood heroes – people I never imagined talking to. I was reading peer-reviewed coral reef articles, and travel narratives about sea turtle researchers. I was sharing my old photographs of the reef with conservation organizations, and newspapers were calling me to find out how the court case was going.

I was most fascinated with the fact that the golf mega-development proposed for Great Guana Cay had marketed itself as a green development. I knew enough marine science to see through this, but I also knew that the idea that a green development could also be the most environmentally unsound development was a perfect issue for Notes from the Road, because there is drama in these more complicated, involved environmental issues.

I still write about, and work on the Great Guana Cay issue every day. To me, it is the quintessential travel story. It pits poor fishermen in a traditional community against legions of foreign businessmen and billions in investment, and a government whose hands are tied by the hotel industry. It is a story of the tiniest grassroots movement – only about 170 people live on the island – who are literally taking the entire Bahamian government, and one of the most important developments ever to come to the Bahamas, to task for the illegal manner in which the development was given approval to build, and for the countless environmental and cultural travesties the development is, and will, have on the island.

MangrovesYoung mangroves in Guana Cay. By Erik Gauger: Used with permission.

How can we get behind the Guana Cay cause?

I tell people to join the discussion, teach the press about the issue, and apply the story to development issues in their own region. The issue of tourism and ‘sustainable development’ is a complex one, with few precedents. The more people who read about and write about an issue like Guana Cay, the better.

You can check out more of Erik’s writing and photography at his website, Notes from the Road.

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Discussion »

  • #1Ombretta Zanetti

    Hi Erik

    I love your web site. I love your passion, drive , enthusiasm and ability to question (check out our blog, as per above, I write and my equally addicted traveller husband, Alex, takes the photos)…..we share your passion.! Life, travel and writing have been my love and passion for a very long time now. Travel makes the home entertainment unit and the convertible porsche seem oh so very ho hum!!! So……………when are you coming to Australia? If you are ever down under, drop us a line, we would love to meet you!



    PS Don’t worry about any of those pastors or born again…whatevers! Maybe if they travelled as mucga s we did, they would see the world through a “different evolution”.

  • #2Brenda Du Faur

    I got the name of Erik Gauger from the letters-to-the-editor of Vanity Fair January 2009 issue letter he wrote regarding big Golf persons wrongly and destructively developing Great Guana Cay in the Bahamas. Much I admire about Vanity Fair- its diligent articles on bush jr and what his policies have done to the environment and so many many other things like that… But I disrespect Vanity Fair for being part of making a big fanfare over wrong things, like unconscionable giant development- as Gauger wrote, “touting the Baker’s Bay Golf and Ocean Club”- “Bahamas Bliss”…and not bringing up the other very bad side of such things… People like Gauger who see all that is going on and are trying to do something about it are like wonderful and fantastical aliens to me. Destruction of land and over development are so painful to me that I, well, stay away from it. To give your all, and for years at that, which I have seen so many wonderful people do- and then maybe still see the bulldozer for another Walmart on the ground you were trying to save are things I feel like I wouldn’t be able to bare…maybe I could evolve to Gauger’s level of seeing it and being in it and actually trying to do something about it… I might need a molecular injection though… But I would take one voraciously if we humans could really reverse it all and save the habitat, the cultures, the people, the animals, the air, the water, the very soul of existence, the universe, the earth itself … … Brenda Du Faur, New Orleans

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