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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Snakebit in San Juan
Don't let the little things make you nuts!
by Jim McGee

Our plane must have flown through the Bermuda Triangle traveling from Philadelphia to San Juan Puerto Rico. The skeptic has now become a believer! The Bermuda Triangle does exist! The vortex and the space aliens really are there! And they take perverse pleasure in sabotaging electronics just to drive us Homo Sapiens out of our gourds!

Well maybe not. But sitting in my hotel room in San Juan I was ready to believe it. The door to my balcony was open to a gorgeous sea breeze that cut through the afternoon heat. Palm trees waved in the wind while the sun poked in and out from behind scudding clouds. But rather than being able to enjoy the day I was staring at an array of electronics on my desk, all of them seemingly dead, including my primary camera. The pile of dead silicon included my laptop, cell phone, mini-cassette recorder, and F100. I was not a happy camper.

I had two articles to shoot while I was here and I was down to my backup body and one of those little 2"x 3" notepads that hotels leave by the phone.

As Managing Editor you wear a lot of hats. It's almost impossible for you to be out of touch for any extended period of time and it seems there is no such thing as time off. When you get forcibly unplugged, as I was, you start getting mental images of people frantically trying to reach you to report that the office is burning down. Coming back without the articles was not an option either. If you're a traveling photojournalist the rule is that you get the job done. Even if it all turns to crap you somehow find a way.

The laptop had been the first casualty. Upon arriving in a hotel the first thing I do is set up the laptop and check email. This is so much of a habit my wife doesn't even bother shooting me dirty looks anymore. But when I tried to power up the beast it just stared back at me and displayed a crude picture that told me it had gone into "sleep" mode. OK I've been doing this awhile and I learned a long time ago that any computer that contains an operating system from Microsoft does weird things occasionally; so I rebooted. After five reboots I realized something more serious was afoot so I reset the machine. After several attempts, loud cursing, and trying every hot key combination I could think of I took a really drastic step and called tech support.

After eighteen minutes on hold and a total of an hour and a half on the phone tech support determined that the machine wouldn't boot. Gee thanks guys.

They recommended that I take it to a shop in San Juan that would open the machine up and determine the problem. They would then reload the operating system. Standard policy I was told. The only way to ensure that Windows wasn't part of the problem was to completely reload everything so that I had a "virgin system". Nice idea. The problem is I don't carry the 20 or 30 odd CDs containing all the software that is loaded on my machine. Without that software the machine is useless anyway. So I opted to wait and use the laptop as a paperweight until I returned to the office.

With several hot irons in the fire I couldn't be away from email for long so I headed down to the lobby. We were staying in a large chain hotel so I figured the business office would be a good, though expensive, option to stay in touch.

A smiling young lady informed me "Sorry, we're doing renovations on the hotel and the construction crew cut our Internet connection in here. It will be at least a couple of days until the business office is back online. Would you like a complimentary copy of USA Today instead?"

The next morning found me hiking in the rain forest and discovering why it's called a RAIN forest. Perched on a boulder at the edge of a small river the rain was coming down so hard it felt like someone was throwing buckets of water into my face. A flash flood had taken the river and the challenge was to try and capture the violence of the water rushing by with such power that you could feel it through the soles of your boots. My camera was working well despite the deluge, but the mini-cassette that I dictate into didn't appreciate the soaking. It stopped midway through the morning, and I'd discover later that all the shooting notes I'd dictated into it earlier sounded like messages from those Bermuda Triangle aliens.

Wet and tired after hiking back up to the car, water still squishing out of my boots, I was surprised that when I opened the car door that my cell phone was ringing. It's just not the sort of thing you expect when you're standing in a landscape that looks like Jurassic Park. Half way into the call the phone beeped at me and died. Dead battery. Odd, wasn't it charging all night? When I got back to the hotel I put the phone on the charger. Nothing. The charger was dead.

The next morning while back in the rain forest the F100, my primary camera, had seemingly developed a fatal problem with the rewind motor. It turns out there is a "unique" battery indicator that occurs when using the VR lens and the camera was fine (see A Weird Interaction with the F100). But for the moment the camera was, by all appearances, dead in the water. Normally this wouldn't be more than a minor irritant but my backup body, an older Nikon, wasn't compatible with the vibration reduction feature of the new VR lens I was testing. So shooting the rest of the trip with that camera would defeat the whole purpose of the test.

So there I was looking at a pile of dead electronics wondering how I was going to get through the rest of the week. 

Well when in doubt - punt. I strolled downstairs with visions of rum drinks dancing in my head. Sometimes when you take your mind off of your problems the solutions will come to you. Walking past the concierge I had an idea. "Do you have any cell phone chargers that guests have left behind in their rooms?" It just so happened that he had quite the collection. I signed for one that matched my phone and was good to go. No sense carrying it around so back up to my room. On a whim, and with a little help from my Swiss Army knife I took my micro cassette recorder apart (it was dead anyway so I had nothing to lose). There was definitely water inside. So I spread the two halves out in the sun on the balcony to dry. It even worked! After a little relaxation therapy courtesy of a glass with an umbrella I sat down with the F100 manual and found the offending error code - and the solution.

So now I was functional again. I could finish the assignment, keep tabs on the office, and I'd relayed word that anything critical that had been sent by email would need to be relayed by voice.

Lessons Learned
Many of you reading this column are serious about your photography. You've spent a lot on equipment and accessories. Some are professional photographers who find themselves in the same boat I did. When they travel they need to bring the images home. The good news is that equipment failures are rare these days; especially if you're shooting with pro-level gear.

Now if you're one of those serious individuals, and if you've been into photography for a while chances are good that you have more than one camera body. If so it's always a good idea to carry a backup if you're on that once in lifetime trip. If you don't have two bodies throw a point and shoot camera into your carry-on. It won't take up much room and it may be able to capture moments that would otherwise be lost in the event your camera takes a nosedive.

Be a Boy Scout. Pack along extra batteries, a Swiss Army knife, and maybe even a mini Leatherman type tool so you can do field repairs. This way if the worst happens you're still good to go - though you may have to go back to old fashioned pen and paper the way that I did.

And finally if the worst does happen don't dwell on it. Step back and do something else. Sometimes a little distance is required to see the solution. Most importantly, unless you're a pro, you're on vacation! So enjoy yourself and enjoy your photography. But if camera woes crop up don't let them spoil the fun. Because when you step back and relax, and you've patiently worked out all the bugs, well, sometimes it all drops into place for that one magic moment.

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