Remote places – Belize

Karel Kuran, Manager, Belize

The unspoiled nature, the diverse fauna and flora, the rich underwater world – all of which can be found in Belize, a small country on the eastern shore of Central America that can be passed through by car in a single day. Its territory is home to the remains of the Mayan culture dated back to the times between the 3rd and 8th century, when Belize was part of the Mayan Empire. Colonizers were present in the later era of the country as well. In the 16th century, the territory was under the rule of the Spanish and subsequently, British lumberjacks settled in. Belize is a country, where on one side you enjoy the beauties of nature and on the other, turn your head in disbelief looking at the living conditions (high number of citizens, primarily children infected with AIDS, poor hygienic conditions) the citizens live in during this advanced age.

Belize is located in Central America. For many Europeans, it is a very distant country, and in your case, it is not the country of your origin. Where do you come from and what path led you to Belize?

I come from the city of Vsetín in the Czech Republic. And how I ended up in Belize? From 2003 to 2005, I lived on the Caribbean island of Roatan, which belongs to Honduras, and worked as a scuba diving instructor. That’s where I met my wife Nicola, who’s from the United Kingdom and worked on her doctorate in marine biology on the island. After she was done with her research, we moved to England together. Nicola finished her studies and I continued working as a scuba diving instructor in the cold English waters. However, we kept dreaming and pondering about moving back to the Caribbean. Nicola was interested in working in this part of the world and eventually found a job in the south of Belize. We packed our things immediately and moved to Punta Gorda, Belize. Three weeks in, I found work as a manager of the TIDE travel agency. This was in the year 2008 and I, or rather we, are still in Belize.

Belize is well-known across the world for its unspoiled rich nature. It offers the second biggest coral reef in the world, attracting photographers from all over the world to take pictures of the local birds or scuba dive in the fascinating underwater world. Were you tempted by any of this?

A few years back, I lived to scuba dive (in Honduras as well as in England), but today, I don’t have much time. Despite that, I do have around 50 dives. Due to the fact that Punta Gorda is located on the southern shore of the country (scuba diving is much butter in the north) where the tourist industry is a little underdeveloped, I have to travel north to scuba dive. On the other hand, since the tourist traffic is low in the south, we have one of the most untouched jungles full off birds and wild animals. Sometimes I try to photograph birds, but my longest 135mm lens is not sufficient. If I am able to choose, I mostly enjoy photographing landscapes and nature in general. I also like to photograph people, festivals and carnivals of the Mayan villages, where the locals still live in wooden huts and keep to the old Mayan traditions.

You have stated ‘Manager’ as your profession. What does this position mean in this part of the world?

My job consists of running a small travel agency called TIDE Tours. It’s part of TIDE, a non-profit organization, which focuses on the preservation of the national parks in the south of Belize. I organize trips around Belize, be it a one day trip or an adventure for three weeks. One day trips to the Punta Gorda area the most popular. Tourists can experience the virgin soil of the nature, Mayan ruins, amazing farms specializing in the production of cocoa (the original Mayan way which dates a thousand years back), snorkeling and fishing. I am also in charge of accommodation and flight tickets for the tourists that come this far south. At the end of the year, I give all of the raised money back to the non-profit organization TIDE, which reinvests it into other projects.

Based on what you have said, you have a very interesting job in a magnificent part of the world. You have found your wife a long way from home. You and your wife must both miss your families, friends. How do you compensate for the distance between you and them?

It’s true that we miss our homes (family, friends, food – Czech for me and English for Nicola, the beer isn’t as good in Belize as it is at home, and you can’t get hold of a plum brandy here either). Although thanks to the internet, we can keep up with the news from home and friends. Facebook in particular is a great communication tool. And when we need to handle or arrange something urgently, we simply use the phone, possibly our parents call through a special IP address. The problem with telecommunications in Belize is that it is now state owned and the government blocks services such as Skype. They are trying to force the users of the internet to use telephones only, brining considerate amounts of money into the government’s treasury. Sometimes, we come home directly. The last time we were home was last Christmas and naturally we were there for our wedding in June 2010. Visiting our parents in Czech and in the UK is a complicated process in terms of organization and logistics and it is planned well ahead.

So you must be glad whenever you return to your homelands with your wife. A wedding is an exceptional event. How often are you able to visit your home towns?

We are of course happy to come home whenever possible. As I mentioned previously, we were home twice the past seven months, but that is a rare exception. It depends on where we currently live. It’s easy to go back home from the UK, as it costs a few sterling pounds with Easy Jet or some other low-cost airline. From Honduras or Belize, it is a little more financially demanding, thus the limited trips back home.

Many people can’t even imagine certain restrictions such as not being able to use Skype, an order coming from a government of the country they live in. Are there other political problems influencing ordinary citizens?

I wouldn’t call it political problems, even though there are things happening that make you (a European) stop and wonder how it is even possible. However, that is the case in most countries of the third world. For instance, when you wish to bring some things into the country (used personal things), you need to pay an import tax of 15 to 50% (the extent of the tax depends on the customs officer and on how many contacts you have). If you want to live in a country such as Belize, you need to reconcile with the fact that government officer’s work at a 20% pace and therefore you need to make contacts at the right places. The citizens of Belize (350 000 people live here) are used to it and nobody sees it as odd when for example the department of motor vehicles does not have the materials to make a driving license on stock and has to order them every time, making you wait for about 2 months before everything necessary arrives. These are however minor problems. The important thing is that Belize is an economically and politically stable country. You don’t have to worry about revolutions or coups, as it was the case in Honduras not long ago.

Is it possible to earn a living with your profession in a country like Belize? In addition, which group of people are well off and vice-versa?

I and my wife have stable jobs that accommodate for enough resources to be able to rent a house on the shore, feed ourselves and two big dogs and save something on the side as well. If one of us were to loose our job, we wouldn’t be able to make it financially. Belize is quite an expensive country to live in. The adjoining countries such as Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras are a lot cheaper. The reason for this is that unlike in the case of neighboring countries, everything has to be imported into Belize. And thanks to the import embargo on the neighbors, everything is imported from the United States. The food is as expensive as and sometimes even more expensive than it is in the United Kingdom. The price of Gas can be compared to prices in the Czech Republic. Obviously, there are a lot of poor people living here, especially in the villages but also in the capital, Belize City. Ones that are the best-off are the staff in the upper positions with the state administration, the owners of large companies (there are a few living here) and people that work for the international non-profit organizations effective in Belize. Employees of the tourist industry are also quite well off.

Are you planning to settle in Belize for good or is this just one of the temporary stops on a journey across the world full new adventures in life and career?

It is most probably one of the stops. Our working visas need to be updated every year and so far it looks as this will be our last year in Belize. Nothing has been decided yet, we will see what the future brings. We do not have any specific plans now.

How did you find out about the WoL project?

I found out about the WoL project only at my own wedding in June 2010. Zdeněk Dvořák was our photographer and during the preparations for the ceremony (he kept on photographing) we talked. When he found out that I live in Belize and enjoy photography, he mentioned WoL. It was the morning of my wedding day so I was able to perceive about 20% of what was going on around me. After all the official and ceremonial moments ended, we came back to the issue of WoL again. He showed me his weeks and I have to say I was impressed and consumed by the idea. For my first week, I documented the commotion of us moving from the Czech Republic to Belize. I must admit that taking 9 photos a day describing the mood and activities of each day is very challenging for me. I sit at the PC all day at work and then do the same at home. So I was a little surprised when I realized that I have photographed things, situations, moments and images which I haven’t noticed before, let alone photographed them. That is why I consider this project so interesting.

weeks of Karel Kuran

Remote places – Costa Rica

Gouttenoire Toh, Photographer, Costa Rica

Costa Rica, Pura Vida. This phrase (often used when greeting someone in Costa Rica), translated into pure life or an expression of utter well-being, immediately makes a strong statement about this ‘rich coast’ country. The happiness index, which identifies the level of satisfaction of residents living in a given country, ranks Costa Rica amongst the top countries in the world, portraying it as a so-called wonderland and one of the happiest places to live on earth. We had the chance to find out what life really is about in Costa Rica while interviewing Toh Gouttenoire, a French photographer who settled in this country and started a family a few years back. Why and how Costa Rica influenced him the way it did is only a small part of the following interview.

First of all, could you tell us something about yourself and your relationship to Costa Rica? Do you come from Costa Rica or did you move there? Your name suggests that you are not Spanish.

As you correctly guess, I’m not a native Costa Rican – Neither am I from Latin America; I was born in France. I first heard of Costa Rica a little more than ten years ago; the brother of a friend was living in a small beach town in this country. After my cinematographic studies, I wanted to travel and I headed there in 2000. I then traveled through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and stopped a few months in Guatemala. From there I rushed to chiapas in order to shoot the Marcha Zapatista (known as „el Sub“ comandante Marcos). I urgently had to get back to France, where I stayed a few months before getting bored of Europe again. I flew back to Guatemala with my current wife and opened a restaurant on the south pacific cost, close to El Salvador. Three years later we bought a van and headed south without any goals, just traveling. After something like six months on the road (through the same country) we entered Costa Rica. I fell in love with Tamarindo bay and the local and expat community. We’ve been living there since.

Costa Rica is said to be the place with the happiest people in the world. What do you think about this? Do you agree with it?

Well, that’s a difficult thing to measure. But, I will say that the people look happier than what I know of Europe and the States, and as for me, just saying that this is the country I choose to live in, build my house and mainly to have my daughter born in (she now has both nationalities) says everything.

You state that you’re a photographer. Is it difficult to earn a living as a photographer in such a country?

I’m not sure it is easy in any country of the world to earn a living as a photographer and I have no vantage point from which to compare the difficulties. But what I can say is that the recent crisis made things more difficult, I was shooting a lot of architecture and real estate photography; that part of my revenue went very low in 2009. I had to re-market my services and the property management took a big part of that loss; making me contract for house shooting. Wedding photography also suffered from that crisis because most of my customers are from the US and Canada coming down to Costa Rica for a tropical wedding. The press (magazine and newspaper) had tough times, too, with the loss of advertising, I saw a few publications that totally disappeared last year.
Anyway this year looks better… So I can earn a living from my photography and add videography, but as everywhere I guess it’s stressful and you never know if you’ll have a contract in the next months. But I won’t complain, it’s one of the best jobs in the world, honestly.

One thing is for sure: you have good light at your disposal during work, as the sun is the best source of light for photographers. How does the climate in Costa Rica suit your needs?

For sure the light here can be really good, but I’ll define it more like powerfully—strong and moving really quickly. Basically we have two seasons, rainy (people in tourism call it the „Green season“) and dry, I have to be precise and state that I’m talking about the pacific coast where I’m living and mainly working. The Caribbean has a different climate. So the green season has a lot of clouds, mist, and rain with a violent sun behind, so we have a beautiful diffuse light, slightly colored at the end of the afternoon; or those clouds can give the opposite effect with some really dramatic storm light with a direct sun passing black clouds, giving intense contrast. The summer (dry season) is a constant blue sky with a punishing hard sun half of the day, but beautiful mornings and sunsets. The main inconvenience is that all year long the sun is setting from 5:15 to 6:15, and lowering in the sky really quickly. The perfect Blue hour (perfect for a real estate shot) just stays for 10 to 15 minutes, so you have to be ready. I sometime miss those long European evenings that have twilight for 2 hours.

Since the European Union was established, there have been increasingly more debates on politics in Europe. The situation is similar in the United States. What is the situation in a place such as Costa Rica? Is anyone preoccupied with politics at all?

Well, Costa Rica just passed through a presidential election campaign, and they elected their first female president, so there was a lot of talk about national politics, but honestly as a non-voting resident, I just stayed on the surface of the talks; I’m more interested in local activism.

Where did you learn about the Week of Life project and what do you think about it?

I learned about it through a post on, I browsed the website and quickly found the concept really interesting. Not long after that I registered and made my first week.
It is, as a viewer, a great way to travel through time and space; giving me the possibility to spend one week in the life of a Tcheque photographer, a Chinese student or a designer in Samoa. From my computer screen in Costa Rica I have all these people sharing their life, their everyday life, in a beautiful way. I love it.

As a photographer or participant to the project, it gave me a subject to concentrate on for a full week, to express one day in nine images, a morning in three photos. that’s an interesting challenge, it is also, as a human being, a good way to reflect on what my life is, what am I doing with it, how am I spending my days… my time… my life.

What would you say about awareness in your country – newspapers, magazines and information in general? What do the media focus on?

Costa Rica is a small country, so the local magazines offer a rather small output. One magazine is quite interesting, there is also, in my opinion, one interesting newspaper, doing a good job on national news, la Nacion ( Sadly a lot of people here are buying cheap (in every way) tabloids full of sensational stories, graphic photographs and almost naked „models“. I get most of my news on the internet.

What would you say about Costa Rica to attract the attention of people who would like to visit this country and know nothing about it?

The classic thing would be to say that the country constitutionally abolished its army permanently in 1949, it has had 60 years of uninterrupted democracy. Maybe more important to people wanting to visit the country—Costa Rica is ranked 3rd in the world, and 1st among the Americas, in terms of the 2010 Environmental Performance Index, it plans to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021, and According to the New Economics Foundation, Costa Rica ranks first in the Happy Planet Index. It is the „greenest“ country in the world. That says a lot about it. Another important stat is that while the country has only about 0.25% of the world’s landmass, it contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Around 25% of the country’s land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. Everything is not perfect here of course, but it is the best I have found around the world.

Weeks of Gouttenoire Toh

Remote places – Vietnam

Hoang Thao, Manager, Vietnam

Hoang Thao, a young lady living in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, gave the first interview from this part of the world, in which she openly expressed feelings that are held by the younger Vietnamese generation of today. She even openly answered questions regarding the current problems of her country. A country where people are closely tied by tradition and where the family stands at the forefront of life. Read the interview with this young lady who represents the young Vietnam generation.

How did you learn about the Week of Life project and what convinced you to take photos of your own week of life?

I often visit, the page of illustrator Vlad Gerasimov, where he wrote that he really enjoyed Week of Life, so I had a look at the homepage, looked at a lot of amazing photos by the others and then wanted to contribute with some images of my life, my area to the Project. So I just went for it.

How would you describe the life in Vietnam? What do you appreciate the most about your country and on the other hand, what would you like to change?

In Vietnam, the lifestyle is different among different cities. My home city, which is the capital, surely has a busier lifestyle than all the smaller ones, but it is not as fast as the biggest city of our country, Ho Chi Minh City. Of course everywhere people have to work hard to earn a living but here they highly consider also the non-material value and they enjoy every moment of their life with other people.
The advantages of my country: People: quite peaceful, friendly, strong connection among the community, caring and generous. Nice landscape. Food: always cheap, fresh and new. It is also famous for Silk and Coffee.
The disadvantages: too many protocols if there’s a problem related to documents. Traffic is bad in the two biggest cities. People are poor. Sometimes customers do not have any power. We need a more active attitude. We need to improve education and books.

We can see from your photos that the members of your family are often together and that you respect traditions. Do you think that people in Vietnam follow national habits more than people, for example, in European countries? And what is the attitude of young people towards respecting traditions?

I think that Vietnamese people, just as European people, have their own special days. Perhaps they are not the same: for example you have Christmas, we have Lunar New Year. However I must say that people here in Vietnam really highly appreciate the value of the family. Normally no one leaves their home to live alone until they get married and family members are always very close to each other. Young people are less meddled by their parents, nevertheless, they still obey their parents a lot. It does not mean they don’t have their own point, but it means they respect and always want to please their parents.

The things you say are very interesting. In Europe and I think in America too, the situation is different. Perhaps that‘s the reason why there are more and more singles who live alone, because today everyone wants to be independent soon. What about you? Do you live alone or with your parents? Do you have brothers and sisters? May I ask you how old you are?

I am 23 and I am not married so I still live with my family. I have a younger sister who is 8 years old (small, right?). Actually I have my job and if I wanted I could move out. But it’s also a problem of finances. It’s more economical when you don’t have to rent a house and the meal (made by mom) is ready every evening after work. I kind of love living with them 🙂 People here are closely attached to their family. For example, if a woman has 2 sons, one of them has to live with the parents to take care of them even if he’s married. Normally that’s the 2nd son :). Next year I’ll go to England for my Master course (Art Management) so of course at that time I won’t live with my family.

You say that you learned about the project from Vlad Gerasimov´s website, Vladstudio. Does it mean that you are interested in visual and graphic arts and design?

I’m interested in interesting things, especially arts. I worked for an art foundation, projects and websites. My hobby is following art events, see what’s happening today… 🙂

What must people in your country do or be to have a good life in Vietnam and not be poor?

To be honest, while a part of the Vietnamese people study a lot, work harder and harder everyday to get high salary and better living standard, others are fond of making big money in short time periods in ridiculous ways that you can not imagine. Mostly they are not criminals but they are fond of things like „lottery and gambling“, which are highly illegal. There are no adequate words for them in English so I’m sorry I cannot explain more 🙂

What would you say about freedom of speech in your country? Is it easy to access information from abroad, for example through the internet, or is there any blockage of sites that are “unsuitable”?

We have freedom, however we never mention sensitive problems such as politics. We cannot access many sites from abroad like Talawas, and even Facebook 🙂 However people always find a way to connect. The government hasn’t released any strict rules concerning these issues.

Buddhism is the most practiced religion in your country. What does it mean exactly for a modern person? Do you feel any difference between the attitude of young and older generations to this faith?

The Vietnamese people have a habit of going to pagodas, especially on Full moon or Lunar New Year. Many of them are Buddhist, however if someone goes to the pagoda it does not mean that he is Buddhist, it’s just something we love to do. Buddhists normally concentrate in certain areas, and they are mostly seniors who have free time. I myself do not like and care about religion, however I love going to the pagodas and wish for better things to happen. Thailand is much more into Buddhism than Vietnam. Both young and old people always respect the faith and the monks, whether they are Buddhist or not. One of the reasons is that Vietnamese people believe monks and Buddhism in general is very pure and believable. Another reason is that during the war, pagodas and monks helped many families hide and live there, they protected them, taught them to write and to speak.

Weeks of Hoang Thao

Remote places – Samoa

Nadya Domashneva, Designer, Sаmoa

Samoa is certainly a remote country for many of us. Its very name and the beautiful way it sounds invites exploration. Nadya Domashneva is not a native Samoan, yet for this very reason you have an opportunity to discover this land through her eyes: the eyes of someone who fell in love with it while striving to keep a realistic outlook. Let yourself get carried away by the words of a woman who adopted a life in a country that is very diff erent from her native Russia.

How did it happen that a girl like you, who comes from Russia, came to live in such a distant and outlying place?

I was born and lived in Russia until my 24th birthday. Life in Moscow is very hectic and fast. Time flies there like nowhere else (apart from Tokyo, people say). I really wanted to slow down or to do something to remember, not just metro-work-metro-sleep, metro-work etc. So, I went to Australia to study Graphic Design for 1 year. During this year I met my future husband, who came to Australia from Samoa (I knew of no such country on planet Earth) to visit his relatives. So we went back together and got married about a year later.

Was it difficult to get accustomed to the local climate and inhabitants of this wonderful country? Did you encounter any problems during your early days?

The climate was all right, because I had already experienced the Australian heat. The inhabitants of this country are friendly, and at first it seems that there is nothing very different. But later I discovered that there is a huge difference between us. Their family structure, their very well preserved traditions from the old days, the power of the Christian church and even their climate and location on the world’s map affect their attitude towards each other, the way they see and understand things and their humor. Two things you always have to consider: traditions and Christian ways.

It was a problem to get used to lizards, giant cockroaches, worms etc. Plus as it is an island in the middle of the ocean – the food supply is quite limited. The magic words “chocolate from overseas” remind me of the times in the Soviet Union, when good stuff could be found only in foreign countries. And, coming from Moscow, the lack of entertainment was quite shocking in the beginning. Clubs here are only open until midnight, we have one cinema and there is a circus, too. Nothing is open on Sundays, because it’s a church day. But now, after almost 2 years of living here, it seems normal and right.

What is the thing most particular to Samoa, when you compare it with the country of your origin?

It’s the landscape and, most of all, the skies! Skies are so beautiful! It’s like a dome covering the island. At night you can see stars at eye level all around you. Stars start at the horizon. You can see the Milky Way very vividly (because we are close to equator and have no pollution at all), and the moon has the shape of a smile, not of a „C“ like in the Northern Hemisphere. In the daytime, clouds are incredibly tall. They pile on top of one another. I guess it’s because of the evaporation from the ocean, which, by the way, you can see from almost any place on the island.

And on the other hand, can you think of anything that these two countries have in common?

Surprisingly yes. I think the common thing is how we raise our children. We are quite strict to them, compared to Australian, American or even European parents. From a young age Samoan and Russian kids know the rules and don’t run around disturbing people. I think Samoan methods are even more strict than Russian ones. In a traditional Samoan family the young ones are responsible for almost all of the household chores, they ought to serve adults, which seems a bit too much for me, but that’s the way people have lived here for centuries.

Is there anything about Samoa that you will never get accustomed to and on the contrary, is there anything you would never change about it?

Well, I guess I will never be able to live in a traditional Samoan house, which has no walls, only roof and posts. I had difficulties even to get accustomed to calling it a house. Though it’s really nice to spend a couple of days on the beach sleeping in one, minimum comfort, maximum nature.

However, as I already mentioned, I believe that Samoa has the most beautiful landscape. It is hard to believe that all these colors and the variety of plants really exist. The fact that you can literally step into paradise just by opening the door (that is, if you even have one) is fascinating. As well as the fact that you can swim in the Pacific Ocean every day if you like, and it will take about 10 minutes to get to the beach. It’s a crazy thought for someone coming from the Ural mountains, where my hometown is.

Do you plan to stay in Samoa forever or do you and your husband ever consider moving to any other places?

I would not mind staying here forever, it’s a great place to raise kids and enjoy life as it is. People have lots of time to spend with their families and friends, time doesn’t fly so fast. You can find time for everything. Work is not the most important thing in the world. To me, it looks like people appreciate true values over here much more than people from big cities.

Many people from America, Australia, New Zealand and some from Europe stay here for the rest of their lives. But, we might try something else. It would be nice to have a New Zealand passport to make it easier for our kids to travel and study overseas.

Do you ever visit your home in Russia and what do you feel when you’re going back there?

I went to Russia only once, after more than a year of travelling. I can’t say that I felt very good in Moscow. Everyone wears black, everyone is rushing, everyone is kind of grumpy… Though I know that is only a facade.

I was so happy to see my relatives and friends, they are the best, of course. But, as for the surroundings, the city… I don’t think I want to live in such a big place anymore. In fact my best time in Russia was when we went with couple of my friends to my country house, away from the noise and transport of the city (life in Samoa reminds me that place a lot with its relaxing on the edge-of being-boring atmosphere). Though before I went to Australia I used to be fond of clubs, parties, and restaurants. I had enough, I guess.

How did you learn about the Week of Life project and what do you think about it?

It’s kind of funny. My husband is an IT worker. Every day he fixes people’s computers and sometimes he sets nice wallpapers on their desktops. He searches for nice ones on the internet. So, some time ago, he found several really nice backgrounds made by someone called Vlad. We assumed that he was Russian. Later on I found Vlad’s website with his beautiful works. He is Russian indeed. In the section where he tells the public about himself was a link to Week of Life website with Vlad’s set. I really loved the idea and started shooting photos of my week the same very day.

I truly admire those members of Week of Life project whose professions are not connected with art, design or other similar things, where being creative is a part of the job. Still they find time and energy to create those beautiful sets and don’t give up on Day 3 or Day 4, when it becomes less entertaining and more obligatory. But, the feeling when everything is finished and uploaded is great! All the effort is definitely worth it!

Weeks of Nadya Domashneva