Vietnam 2017

In November I head for Vietnam for my 3rd trip, this time Sharon came with me so I was worried if she would like it as much as I do.  Also since I wanted to take photos I gave her a camera as well.  This sort of backfired as she got better photos 🙂  We visited Hanoi, a 2 night cruise in Halong Bay and finally 6 nights in Hoi An.

Hanoi.

I love Hanoi, it’s vibrant, brash, busy, noisy full of motor cycles, but the people are friendly and happy and Vietnamese food is amazing.  We stayed in a really nice hotel in the Old Quarter. In reality I think I would happily stay for weeks in Hanoi, wandering the streets taking it all in and getting photographs.  The last time we were in Vietnam we went to SaPa in the north of the country on the Chinese border but I remembered that when we took the train you could virtually put you arms out the windows and touch the houses.  I wanted to visit the tracks and see how people lived along the tracks.  It was great fun and we met some nice people in particular a young lady selling her own clothing designs in a shop on the tracks.  I will head back here again.Hanoi2017-8937

We also met some good friends we made at a previous trip to visit the Haemophili Centre in a hospital.  Dr Mai and her family were really nice to invite us to her house for a meal and we had a great night.  On the Friday Minh and Hang took us out for a lunch and showed us around Hanoi, another lovely afternoon.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay was a great peaceful break after hectic Hanoi.  We spent two nights on a lovely junk, it was spacious, lovely bedroom, great food and excursions to some of the islands, caves and villages on the bay.

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Hoi An

Hoi An is an amazing place, my daughter recently did a tour of Southeast Asia and it was her favourite.  We were a bit apprehensive heading out as it was just at the end of a fierce storm the Damrey Typhoon which sadly killed 89 people, injured a further 174 and caused huge damage.  However we had fantastic travel agents Exotic Voyages (link) who looked after us very well and they had arranged a five star replacement hotel for our first two nights.  This is the second time I have used Exotic Voyages (Myanmar 2014) and they are fantastic.

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What amazed us was the strength of character and resilience of the locals.  They have regular floods, in one restaurant two streets from the river we could see the water line above our heads where the river water had reached.  Yet within days and as the water receded the shops and streets were cleaned and up and open again.  Of course it might have been due to the APEC conference in Danang and visiting dignitaries to Hoi An!  We had a few trips arranged with Exotic Voyages that were great fun, a cooking lesson, trip to My Son Sanctuary, and tour around Hoi An.  Sharon had a dress made and me a bamboo shirt.  Overall a great experience and a place I would head back to along with Hanoi.

Sarnelli House Orphanage

This week I was putting together a photo book of photographs we took in Sarnelli House orphanage last October.  Sarnelli House is an orphanage in northeast Thailand, where our friends Kate and Brian have worked for a number of years.  I have written about Sarnelli House before see here and here,  and you can see their own web site at this link.  I won’t repeat what I said previously except to say it is really great to see the work being done and to meet the children in particular the two girls we sponsor.

I recently became aware of comments by J.K. Rowling, the famous author and founder of the Lumos Charitable Foundation, who speaks against Orphanages, seer their website here.  The basic premise is that children belong in families and not orphanages.  They believe that children belong in loving families being brought up by their parents or other family members where the parents are not around anymore.  In truth I can’t disagree with this.  They believe that children can’t get the love and comfort they need and that the orphanage environment harms their development, can involve abuse of different varieties and can ultimately lead them to lives of crime, prostitution and worse.   This is probably true for some or maybe even many orphanages.

However, I am pleased to have found that this is not the case at Sarnelli House.  They look after around 150 children spread over 6 houses in a few villages.  Of course these children have many challenges in their lives, and of course they would be better at home with two loving parents, but simply this is not the case. 

In the late 1990’s Fr Shea worked with victims of the AIDS epidemic in Thailand.  Typical of the reaction to the AIDS epidemic around the world, many victims were banished from their villages, friends and even their families, forced to leave their homes and live in hovels.  Fr. Shea and the Redemptorists brought them food, medicine and compassion.  Eventually the parents died and left children, most of whom also had AIDS, and as no one wanted them they were left to fend for themselves.  In response to this catastrophe Fr Shea founded Sarnelli House. Much more detail can be found on the Sarnelli House website. 

The children receive an education and in fact some of the older children are encouraged to do 3rd level education and are supported through this by the orphanage.  Where children have families, they are healthy and have access to required medication and the environment is safe to do so they are supported to return home, if not full time then for parts of the year, so that they can be re-introduced to families.  However, in some cases a number of families are so poor but have a child willing to learn and work they will ask the orphanage to take the children to feed, clothe and educate them in order to give the child a better life then they can give them.  A purely loving and selfless act to give their child a better life.  In other cases the children are abused at home even by their own families and they need to be taken away for their safety.

Sarnelli House also has an extensive nurse led outreach programme to support children and families in the local villages that need support (food, clothes and medicine) to survive or have an improved life.  This provides help and support to families without having to take children into the orphanage and helps the family as a whole and not just the child.

They also have self-sufficiency programmes to be able to supply their own food. The use their land for paddy fields to crow and process their own rice, raise pigs, chickens, ducks, and have their own fish ponds, and gardens for vegetables and fruit.  Where they have surpluses they can sell to support the Sarnelli House.  In addition this gives some of the children skills and experience that they can use in later life, and indeed gives some of them employment.  

On the day we arrived the orphanage was having a sports day, where the staff and volunteers were entertaining the children and it was fantastic to see the children have so much fun.   It was inspiring to see the children so healthy, happy and enjoying themselves.  I’m not so naïve as to think that their lives are perfect.  I’m sure they have their own demons and have challenging lives, but compared to how their lives could have been Sarnelli House is truly a sanctuary where they receive love and support to reach their potential and be nurtured as they grow into adults.

Sarnelli House revisited 2017

Last year, in October 2016, was the first time Sharon and I visited our friends Kate and Brian in Sarnelli House orphanage. The orphanage does fantastic work looking after over 150 children of all ages and many with HIV. You can read more here about the great work that they do and my previous post.

Sarnelli House is located in northern Thailand in Nong Khai not far from the Mekong river that divides it from nearby Laos. This year we decided to visit Sarnelli House and then continue on for a holiday in Vietnam.

We were really looking forward to seeing Brian and Kate, meeting Fr Shea, the staff and the children/teenagers. However, this year we had the added anticipation of meeting the two children we sponsor.

It is the end of the school holidays and when we arrive they are having a sports day in the community hall. We sneak in the front door and watch the antics and activities. Looking around to see if I can see the child I sponsor. I catch a glimpse of her down the hall sitting on the floor and chatting with her friends. She looks up and sees me. She jumps up, races down the hall, and gives me a huge hug. One of the greatest feelings you can ever get!

We have to thank Brian & Kate who looked after us so well, and Fr Shea who made us feel so welcome.

DxO ONE Camera

This summer on my summer holidays I brought my all time favourite camera, the Fujifilm X-T2 and one lens, the XF18-55 standard kit lens, which is by no means standard as it’s a great lens. However, I never took it out once in the two weeks I was there.   I took all my photos with my DxO ONE camera.
 
DxO was created in 2003 and is best known for DxOMark, a trusted industry standard for camera and lens image quality measurements and ratings. It also produces DxO Analyser and other software. So they have a history in knowing what makes good cameras and lenses to make good images.
 
The DxO One is their first camera. It’s compact and lightweight, with it’s own battery and microSD port, a small OLED touchscreen but it also has a lightning connector that allows it to be connected directly to an iPhone which transforms into the DxO One’s viewfinder and which gives the photographer complete control over the camera, just like a DSLR.
 
What I like is the portability of the system, the quality of the images, the fact it can be used with or without the iPhone, accessories are available for underwater or around water and sand, there are some cons but I’ll cover them later. What I also like is that similar to Fujifilm they have a culture of continuous improvement. They improve the camera with upgrades through firmware updates with really gives you a new camera with extra functionality. They also improve the software for processing the files meaning the quality of the images improve.
 
You can get details of the camera here.  But some of the key specifications are:
  • 1″ sensor, the same sensor used in the popular and highly rate Sony RX100 III
  • Sensor BSI-CMOS
  • 20.2 megapixels, Resolution: 5472 x 3648
  • f/1.8 max aperture
  • 32mm focal length fixed (equivalent)
  • Max shutter speed 1/8000 sec
  • ISO  AUTO, 100-12800
  • Photos taken in RAW, Super Raw & JPEG
  • Video MPEG4, 1080(30p), 720(120p)
  • Weight 108 grams
  • Dimensions (cm): H 6.75, W 2.5, D 4.8
  • Internal Micro SD with micro USB port for charging and file transfer to PC/MAC
  • Built in wireless
  • Specialist software to process the images to fullest potential
  • Raw images can be processed with Lightroom and Photoshop, with Lightroom having a plugin to the DxO software
 
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DxO One with Lightening connector extended.

The camera can be used in 3 modes, the most common will be attached to an iPhone (or iPad) with a lightening connector and the DxO ONE app.

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DxO ONE connected to the iPhone

In this mode the iPhone acts as the monitor for the camera and using touch the focus point can be set.  There are full camera controls with: PSAM modes, Fully automatic, scene modes, exposure compensation, 3 focus modes, ISO and white balance.  Photos can be taken in JPEG, RAW (DNG) or a special DxO Super RAW image quality.  Super RAW has been specially designed for low-light or very high ISO situations.  This method combines 4 success shots into a single RAW file.  The images are taken automatically and within milliseconds of each other.  The DxO software processes the images to reduce both spatial and temporal noise.  The results are generally very good particularly when there is no movement of the camera or the subject.  The images are recorded to the microSD card in the camera but the images including RAW flies can be transferred to the phone to be processed using applications like Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile.

 

The second mode is using the camera on its own without an attached iPhone.  Initially it was a matter of estimating where the subject is and trying to keep the camera level.  In this mode it is not possible to set the controls of the camera.  There are three options which can be selected by sliding your finger across the small OLED screen on the back of the camera. You can select a fully automatic mode, the last used selection when the camera was attached to the iPhone and video mode.  I have used it in this manner quite successfully.  However, there was an upgrade in one of the firmware updates that allowed the small monitor on the back of the camera to provide what they call framing assistance.

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Framing assistance on DxO ONE
In the photo above you can see an outline of the my hand and the candles on the table on the back of the camera.  It is a huge advantage allowing you to select the focus point (by half pressing the photo button) and then re-framing the image as required.  I regularly use this feature as I normally use Program mode in my photography anyway, though occasionally, when required, I’ll set the camera to speed priority.

The final mode is via Wi-Fi.  The iPhone is used as the camera controller and monitor but is connected to the DxO ONE by Wi-Fi.  This can be either an existing Wi-Fi network or a Direct Connection which is useful when out and about.

The DxO ONE being used in Wi-Fi mode
The camera comes with the DxO ONE connect software used to upload the images from the camera to the PC/MAC.  It also optimises the images and it is required for the Super RAW images.  They also sell a software suite that includes: DxO OpticsPro, DxO FilmPack and DxO ViewPoint, used to correct images and apply creative changes to your images.  These can all be called from Lightroom as well similar to NIK integration.
 
I have some issues with the camera, the main one being the battery life.  It is quite poor and you really need a power bank with you, but if you have a smart phone you probably need one of these anyway.  DxO have released some updates and guidelines on how to get the best out of the battery.  Other minor quibbles would be: slow start up time, a built in tripod mount (although they sell a separate stand for this), concern that the lightening connect might change in future iPhones, cost of the PhotoSuite.
 
Having said all the I find it a great camera and as I said at the start it was the only camera I used on my recent holiday and I find the quality to be excellent. I love the detail and the colour rendering of the images, even in low light and it’s compactness is great I have a special camera zipped pouch that I can can keep all the time on my belt.  I have printed images and found them to be excellent indeed  one image from Cuba was exhibited at the Cervantes Institute in Dublin.
Havana Cuba, 2/5/2016, Aperture Priority, ISO: 100, Speed: 1/200s, Aperture: F1.8, Metering: Spot
Here’s a few more images taken on the DxO One in a number of different circumstances, and light conditions. I haven’t done any processing on them.  They have only gone through the standard optimisation process of the DxO Connect software, so not quite straight out of the camera. (10 images in total)

I think this is an amazing little camera, which I have come to appreciate more over time.  Ideal for travel or just having on you all the time.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

DJI Spark – First Flights

Just got a DJI Spark and having some great fun with it.  Surprisingly good smooth video (HD 1080p).  4K doesn’t really interest me at the moment and takes some serious computing power to edit and render.  Here is some of the video from a trip to Killinthomas Woods, Kildare and Portmarnock Beach.  Mind you there were some anxious moments when it does some of its built in routines.  It went so far I thought I would lose it at sea! Anyway here’s a bit of video from my first attempts at flying and videoing!

Toronoto June 2017

We had a short family holiday to Toronto for a week in June to visit our daughter and her boyfriend who are staying and working there for a period of two years.  They are soon coming to the end of their first year.

This is my first visit to Toronto and it is a lovely city, very safe, clean and relatively easy to get around.  On our first full day we rented a car and headed to Niagara.  We first went to Niagara on the Lake which is a stunning little town surrounded by tons of little wineries two of which we visited. I would love to have spent more time here.  We then headed on to the Falls which was great to see.  Here are some of the photos from our visit to Niagara.

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The rest of the time we spent in Toronto visiting the sights and having a great time.  We visited the aquarium, the Royal Ontario Museum,  graffiti alley, and of course it was the 150 anniversary for Canada.  Some photos from here.

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Sarnelli House Orphanage: Enlightening and enriching experience.

My most interesting, enlightening, uplifting and enjoyable trip in a few years was a trip to Thailand in September 2016.  Sharon and I started with a couple of days in Bangkok.  We stayed in a nice hotel overlooking the river.  We didn’t really get to spend too much time in Bangkok and it didn’t really make much of an impression, I think you would need more time there and perhaps with someone who could show you around and learn about the highlights.

Here are a few shots taken in Bangkok by Sharon and I.

But then Bangkok was really only a stop-over on our way to Northern Thailand. Our destination was the Sarnellii House Orphanage in Nong Khai which is very close to the border with Laos and the Mekong River.  What brought us to Sarnelli House is our great friend Brian and his wife Kate who is the nurse at the orphanage.

They have a very good web-site that can give you more details than I can, see Sarnelli House.  However, if you take a few minutes to view the following video it will give you an idea of why this trip had such an impact on us.

In brief it is a home for children affected by HIV/AIDS and poor and abandoned children.  It currently has about 150 children but began in 1998 with just seven and one house.  The founder is Father Michael Shea an Irish American priest with the Redempterist Order. He has lived and served in this region for 50 years. The naissance of the orphanage was the dying wish of an AIDS mother who pleaded that Father Shea would look after her surviving children who had also contracted HIV, and he agreed. 

Brian with one of the babies at Sarnelli House

HIV/AIDS began in the early eighties, had a terrible reputation with suffers treated badly and spurned by communities. Since the introduction of effective treatment, about fifteen years, this has greatly improved. However, not so much in the poor and outlying villages of Thailand where it is still a stigma that forces families out of work, school and even their homes and communities. It is probably similar in other poor regions of the world.

As I said there are about 150 children in the orphanage and 27 who are in college.   Over the years they have looked after over a thousand children. They provide them with shelter, food, ensure they get educated and any medical treatment they need. Fortunately Thailand has eradicated HIV being transmitted from mothers to their babies so the young infants no longer suffer from HIV/AIDS. There are older children that have unfortunately acquired HIV and they need to be closely monitored and properly medicated. The children taken in have been either abused, abandoned or the families are so poor and destitute that they have taken the difficult decision to send their children here to receive a proper education and a better chance in life.

The orphanage employs about 60 staff over 90 percent who come from the local villages and act as house mothers, cooks, cleaners, drivers, office administrators, farm hands & farmers. This is money that goes back into the local community. They run their own farm with: pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, fruit and vegetables and rice. This is a big project which is very expensive to establish with farm equipment, land, stock and fertilisers to mention just a few. But it provides the older boys in particular with great experience and training and a small income.  The project gets much needed financial support but it also makes the orphanage self-sufficient in many of its food needs.

Kate with some of the girls

 

Sharon with some of the volunteers and girls from Sarnelli

Our friend Brian was introduced to Sarnelli House a few years ago through a friend of his and started by sponsoring a child, started volunteering on and off for short periods of time and then about two years ago decided he would work there full time.  Last year he married Kate. 

Our visit had a huge impact on us and made us understand why Brian and Kate have decided to dedicate their time to working for this very worthy cause.  Although the stories behind each child, is always very sad and sometimes disturbing it is great to see them mostly flourish and enjoy a much better life than they otherwise would have had.  We spent time with the children and they just lapped up the affection and love you gave them.  The smaller babies and kids would jump all over you and loved being played with.  The older children also enjoy company and interact with staff, helpers and volunteers.  Even the language barrier doesn’t prevent one from enjoying your time with them.  Initially I felt a little uncomfortable taking photographs but they enjoyed it as I had a small portable printer which meant I could give them their own photographs.

You can’t help yourself feeling for the children and making a connection with one or two of them.  I was so touched when one I had connected with wanted to see us off at the airport.  It made it even more difficult to leave, but a cherished moment.  It is so nice to hear from her now and again, now that I’ve returned home.

It was truly an amazing trip which Sharon and I hope we can repeat again in the near future.

 

 

Cuba 2016

In May we headed back to Cuba just over 5 years from my last visit.  Given the importance of change in relations with the US and CUBA it was a really interesting time to visit.  What concerns most visitors is how much will Cuba change due to the new agreement and the influx of US visitors.  Well on our visit as you would expect so soon after the agreement there were no significant changes, but you could see that it won’t take long for these changes to materialise.  There were works on at least 6 hotels when we were there, some new, some were refurbishments.  Many new rooms are needed, as we could see how expensive hotel rooms have become, and indeed we found it really difficult to hire a car for a few days.  Our visit also coincided with a number of big events.  The first was Chanel, led by Karl Lagerfeld holding a huge fashion show on the main street, Prado.  It was the launch of their Caribbean-Infused Cruise Collection.  There were a huge number of models, make-up artists, photographers, TV crews and visitors for this event.  The second event was the landing of the first cruise ship directly from the US, which we saw in both Havana and in Cienfuegos.  Finally there was an event involving a lot of the famous Cuban cars for a Fast & Furious promotion.  No wonder rooms were expensive!

None the less we had a great break of 8 days spread between Havana and Cienfuegos.  Here are some of the photos I took.

Ballet is really popular in Cuba and Ramses arranged for us to shoot a member of the National Ballet in an old Mansion.  Very pleased with this shot which won our last monthly competition.Ballerina

The Capitolio in Havana:

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What everyone loves to see, the Cuban Cars:

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In Cienfuegos the first cruise ship from the US was leaving and a group of Cubans headed down to see the cruiser leave, they were happy to see the Americans arrive:

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Something we tend to forget is that Cuba is in the Caribbean and has beautiful beaches.

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Finally a selection of some images for you to view.

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