Honored to be featured with Virgin.com!

Today, I woke up to my dream of having my journey in Africa featured with Virgin!  What an honor to be connected with such an amazing group of people, out there helping others to change the world!  If you've clicked through the article and landed here, welcome!  I invite you to scroll down through the lions and elephants to take a deeper look into the month I spent with the communities in South Africa.   I love and appreciate comments, and look forward to having conversations with you, so enjoy the posts, enjoy the photos, and come back often!  If you haven't read the article yet, here you go!  http://www.virgin.com/unite/our-community/changing-the-world-through-a-lens

Much love,

Shelly 

 

About a lion

On my final game drive of the week, we got to be in the darkness with my beautiful pride of lions one last time.  It was a different experience to be with them at this hour, this is when they travel, when they hunt.  All of the little ones rushed up along side us, looking at us straight in the eye asking, "Do I know you?" "Should I care?".  After they got bored checking us out, they returned to the lesson at hand; their moms teaching them how to hunt, and of course, a little bit of play as well.  We sat there for a good half hour watching them interact with each other, then followed as they marched down the road to find their dinner for the night.  With the big cats, you can shine light on them at night and it doesn't bother them at all because the light gets absorbed behind the retina and is reflected back out.  For this reason, we could shine the lights around them and get an intimate viewing of their night time habits.  The antelope don't have this trait, so you have to switch off the lights immediately if you see them.  As we started to head home, we noticed a herd of impala grazing directly in the path that the lions were walking.  We stopped, switched off the engine and the lights, and listened... There in the pitch black of the bush you can almost hear your own breath, your senses heighten in anticipation of witnessing a kill. We heard the "Pbffff!" of one of the impala, it was her danger call. Then a slight rustle, then complete silence... The impala had seen the lion, so it was too late, there was no attack this time.  I was both disappointed and relieved at the same time.  It would have been a thrill to witness, but I also didn't have to listed to the scream of a dying animal.  Here are a few of my favorite photos from the night, I'll miss my "babies", as I got used to seeing them almost every day.  The gaze of my one special little lion will stay with me forever, it's precious beyond words to feel a silent conversation with such a stunning being.  A sweet connection with one of God's great creatures.  

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Eles

It's amazing to me how a six ton animal can virtually disappear in the thick of the bush in the blink of an eye.  Their huge pillars of legs lifting off the ground with such grace, setting down again so gently that the long grass below hardly notices its being taken down to meet the earth.  Of all the animals I've come across, the elephant is one of my favorites. Maybe it's because their eyes meet yours when you pass, being at the same height as you in your vehicle.  You find their tiny orbs staring into yours just long enough to sense that they acknowledge you as a fellow being on the planet, sharing space, connecting for just a moment.  You hold your breath because you are in the presence of such power, such massive strength.  You sit there quietly listening to the whoosh from the flapping of their ears, you can almost hear the thick air split in two when they lift their trunk up high, then release it, falling towards the ground with a muffled snap.  When their canvass of a head turns to look at you, everything in your body wants to crawl inside itself and hide, but you savor the moment instead, daring to look in his eyes to say hello.  He turns his head forward, continues on, and you are left with the residue of awe tingling in your veins.  Eles, they are very special creatures indeed. 

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A note from Mavis

So on the last day at Mawewe high school, I asked my kids if they would write a little thank you note to my friends who helped me to come there and teach.  They sat there for a good fifteen minutes, looking a bit nervous at writing in English, but as I read their words, I was the one who was thankful beyond words... This note from Mavis made my eyes tear up and I scooped her up in a huge hug and we both smiled the biggest smiles and our eyes shone as we looked at each other with gratitude.  I look forward to seeing Mavis accomplish her dreams, and I have a special feeling that we will be a part of each other's lives from a while to come. 

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Home life & a gallery show

It's amazing how connected you can get with a person or a place in such a short amount of time.  I've never been one to like trips where you jet in and jet out quickly, but have always chosen the travel plans where I spend a long enough time to know the ones around me, get a lay of the land, and begin to feel at home... I can't believe I've only been here in Ulu for two weeks because it feels like I am part of a family here.  I only have a day and a half left, but if I think about it too hard I'll cry, so I will just keep cherishing every sound, every humid breath of air, every warm hello from the faces I've come to know and love.  

Today was my last class at Mawewe, and the first time I had to say goodbye.  I think Mr. Sibuyi thought I was a little nutso because I just kept thanking him, and I think I shook his hand and smiled at him half dozen times in my last half hour there.   (David, please tell him I'm really a normal person!)  Nthambi, Mavis, and Gerald met me in the library this morning, as did my sweetest Mpilo, and we went over things like formatting the memory card, making sure you wipe the lens with a soft cloth every so often, how to upload photos to the laptop, and encouraging the creation of a photo club.  Then, from my backpack,  I pulled out a huge stack of photographs from our week together and spread them all over the table, their smiles beamed as they sifted through the papers giggling.  I could hear their excited chatter in Shangaan as they taped the photos into the frames I brought them. It was really pure magic seeing their faces illuminate as their friends funneled in the room pointing and commenting on their photographs.  I thought I was going to have to surgically remove the cameras from their bodies, as they kept them around their necks the whole day, periodically grabbing friends for a snapshot or posing someone with flowers.  

Even with all of this, I have to admit that my favorite part of today was when I got to see the photos that the three of them took after school when they went home.  We gathered around my laptop as each one explained to me who was in the photos;  "That is me with my dad" "That is my friend, and my mother", "This is my baby niece, In English her name is Beautiful, and her second name is Thankful.  Her brother's name is Smile", "This is my grandmother making marula beer", I got to see a glimpse of their life, finally.  I got to see their personality, their family, what is important to them.  And, it was all possible because of a camera.  Isn't it beautiful, that a small piece of technology can be the thing that brings you together and breaks the barrier of different worlds.  Looking up at their sweet faces as they smiled and proudly explained their photographs to me is what I came here for... Nothing can beat how special it felt to be a part of this journey with them.  There are now three more angels engraved in my soul. So blessed, so blessed, so blessed.   

 

Here are some of Mavis's photos from her evening with the camera...

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The following are images from our nice little gallery show today in the library!

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The Fantastic Four!

Let me introduce you to my young photo prodigies, Mavis, Nthabisang, and Gerald.  I have been with them for three days now, and they are slowly stealing my heart.  We've had so much fun wandering around Mawewe finding photo subjects and playing with our cameras.  They are super sweet, eager to learn, and they are taking their photography course very seriously.  I absolutely love watching them in their elements, composing shots, posing their teachers, sharing what they have shot with their friends.  It's so cool to see, and I am so grateful that Mr. Sibuyi hand picked these three lovlies for me.  

Then there is Trevor.  I met him when I first arrived at Mawewe last week, he was tutoring a girl in the library.  He impressed me with his cobalt blue suit and deep pink button down shirt.  Every day he has been dressed to the nines, even though it is hot and horribly humid out.  I learned that he recently returned to his community after spending six years abroad in China at University.  He wanted to come back home to teach the children of his town how to excel in life and share his knowledge, yet he still has grand plans of more studies and changing the world.  When I told him what I was doing here, his eyes lit up and he wanted to be a part of it.  This made me feel so much better, as I now had someone I knew could carry on the program once I leave.  I've been giving him more detailed lessons about photography, as I know he will be able to relay the information well to future students.  

One of my teacher students Ntombi and I were standing out under the tree chatting today, and she looked at my shoes and said, "You must give me your shoes, I love them, you must give them to me...!"  I looked at her and smiled, and if they were any other shoes, I would have taken them straight off and passed them over, but they were my espadrilles from CapeTown and were my favorite shoes of all time.  Now, yes, I did feel guilty and selfish in not giving them to her, but I did promise that next time I came I would bring her some.  This pleased her and she said, "When are you coming back?!"  I asked her size, and jotted a mental note to get some espadrilles for Ntombi in a size 7.  Just then Trevor jumped in as well with "And you must bring me my nice camera!"  I looked at him, smiled, and motioned for him to follow me, leading him back to the library.  Reaching into my camera bag, I wasn't planning on leaving my G12 here, but this definitely felt right.  This camera was for Trevor, my gift to him for taking care of my program for me.  "Here, this is from me to you, I hope you enjoy it and learn a lot with it!"  "Ahhh, I will be taking five hundred photos today with this!"  He said, his smile wide and wrapped me in a hug.  He tells me, "The kids, they really love this; they are so motivated to learn and think this is the best! Thank you so much!"  Even though tomorrow will be my last day with Mawewe, I feel that I have at least created inspiration, and that, along with my heart felt hugs, is priceless.  

 

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The Airport

For a change of scenery, and just because I have a love affair with airplanes, I spent the morning at Ulusaba's airstrip.  Think of Out of Africa, and where Robert Redford would have met Meryl Streep when she landed... That is where I was transported to.  A beautiful thatched roof building with hand made woven chairs and polished slabs of wood as tables on a spacious deck sunken right into the bush.  All you hear is the wind through the trees and the myriad of bird song surrounding you as three small planes sit silently below waiting for the bush pilots to arrive.  

Presence and I were the only two there; she runs the airport.  I poured a cup of rooibos tea, threw my camera around my neck, and walked down to the planes.  It felt amazing to roam freely at an airport, just me and three metal birds with no one else in sight, no security, no TSA.  I spent the next half hour walking around every inch of those planes, losing myself within their angles, patterns, and shadows.  A powerful desire came over me to learn how to fly, pull on the rudder and lift off the ground, watching the tiny runway disappear beneath me.  Then, as if appearing out of thin air, I noticed two pilots walking around one of the planes.  I went over to say hello.  James and I stood there and talked shop for a few minutes, as I mentioned I was a flight attendant and my brother was a pilot. They had seven legs today, all up and around the various game lodges.  It was all I could do to keep my cool and not beg for a ride in their plane.  James tells me they are based here, and live at the pilot's camp just through the bush off the edge of the runway.  I recalled how we heard music and chatter coming from the distance the other day while out on our game drive.  Our ranger told us it was the bush pilots, and sometimes they got a little loud out there partying amongst themselves.  We all laughed and carried on.  I was happy to actually meet them now, both of us beaming; he climbed into his plane, and I walked up the ramp back In to Africa.  

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Ntseveni school

Today, it was just Charlie and I.  He met me at the gate and drove me to three different schools in Dumphries.  My mission was to take photos so that we can start to rebuild the collection of photographs which had all been lost this past year.  It was also to say hello and see how things are going.  

The first school was Ntseveni Day Care, where I met the lovely Miss Sandra.  She took me around the two areas of her school, showing me the various class rooms and explaining the history of how each part has come to be.  It opened in 2005 with just one tiny brick building that had to hold over forty students. That small space is now used as storage and an office.  I couldn't believe that within those cramped walls used to be a classroom of 40!  She told me how Africa Foundation helped out around 2011 and built a larger classroom and also proper toilet facilities.  "Before that,"  she explained, "we had to just have buckets down on the ground with seats and we had to make a cover around them." Then P'nP came and helped to build another classroom as the school's population started growing, and now they have also added another which is just awaiting more furniture and school supplies.  Ntseveni has nine staff, and about 175 children.  I learned they get paid 1,000 Rand per month, which in US dollars is equivalent to about $100.  The children's 100R tuition helps pay for this, but it is still not enough to have food for them when they are at school.  Sandra shows me a small brick hut which is half finished, "That is where we want to stock bread so that the children can eat when they are here, but we have not been able to finish it, and we don't know when it will be done."  30R is enough to buy bread for the whole school, she tells me, but even if a truck full of bread arrived, there would be no place to keep it.  When I asked Sandra what she felt they needed most right now, the first thing she said was "a kitchen."  She pointed over to the brick wall where a woman was hunching over a pot and continued, "It is difficult to cook in the rain, we need a kitchen with a roof."  Other than these things, the school is alive and bustling with smiles and playful little bodies everywhere.  They have two lovely play areas, one which was built by the Virgin Unite crew two years ago, and the other which was donated by Pn'P.  They smile, laugh, and look at me curiously.  As I signed the guest book when I left, I noticed that I was the first visitor since November. Sandra says to me with hope in her eyes, "I would be so happy if you came back..."  I would be too, and hope that I do.    

 

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Sundowners

It's so beautiful, sundowner time.  I pull my chair out in front of my thatched roof home, pour a heap of ice and some white wine into my favorite goblet glass, and just feel the breeze, watch the sun set behind the koppie (hill), and listen to the local music start to sound from the round of staff housing across the way.  Birds swirl above, sprays of chatter and occasional bursts of laughter fill the air, and I sit in complete adoration of where I am in this special place in time.  The sisters have left this afternoon for the lodge above, so I am alone in this place tonight, as I will be for the next week ahead.  I find peace and a good solitude in it, able to sit and write, edit, think, ponder, appreciate... I miss my ladies (and young gents), but I am happy to have this time for my mind to release, and to sit in my own thoughts for awhile.  There are plenty of people surrounding me in this village, about thirty some-odd tiny homes, so I feel very comforted and safe.  

This morning I went along with David Khoza as he took some lodge visitors around Dumphries to show them what Pride & Purpose does in the community.  There were a couple women and their daughters from Brazil as well as an American newlywed couple from New York.  We visited a few schools, played with the kids, and learned a lot about this area, its history, and the people.  The rest of the day I spent in my new home editing photos and catching up.  The following is a little collage of some of my favorite captures from the past week.  I hope you enjoy... And, thanks again for following this journey, it means a lot to know I am writing to friends.  Much love, s.  

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Tizameleni

Today we headed out farther into the village to visit the school which our fellow volunteer Kerrie has funded, Tizameleni.  Kerrie is here with her two sisters, Helene and Adrienne, along with Helene's two amazing teen aged sons, Finn and Callum.  She fell in love with Ulusaba over three years ago while on safari and has since returned three to four times a year from England.  Her heart is totally enmeshed in this place, both with the children and with the wild life.  "The first time you hear a lion roar,"  she says "you are a changed person forever."  

The day today was hot.  The feel factor was close to 45 degrees, and the ladies were painting in the direct sun at noon.  It was scorching, but they wanted to finish before they leave tomorrow morning for the lodge.  Jen, who works at the lodge down the road, Leopard Hills, also came with today, and will be my partner for the next week.   We'll be returning daily to Tizameleni to help the teachers create lesson plans and get a program going for the new school.  She set up a hand painting station, and I helped funnel the kids in to mash their hands in trays of green, yellow, and blue paint, and transfer their colorful fingers onto a sheet of paper.  Their little eyes wide with confusion, as they were a bit baffled as to why these white women were dipping their hands in paint and squashing them down.  Of course, in true Shelly fashion, my radar set on one little girl who stole the very core of my soul.  I found out later that her name is Tabile.  She has the most infectious laugh, and that together with the dimple on her left cheek officially made her the cutest child on the planet...or at least in Africa.  

At first, when I found out that the sisters were leaving tomorrow and I would be by myself here at Dagga Boys for the rest of my stay, I was a little freaked out.  But today it all came together... Jen and I will be partners in crime for a few days, David Khoza (the other host of Pride & Purpose) and I will also be pairing up so that I can go around to all of the projects here taking photographs, I have so many portraits yet to take, and so many people to hand cameras to... I feel like I have only a blink of an eye to squeeze in all I want to accomplish.  There is no place on earth I'd rather be right here, right now.  I am truly blessed! 

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Kids will be kids...

I wasn't expecting to begin the project yesterday, it just naturally happened.  While interacting with them and taking their photos, they all want to see the picture on the back of the camera.  They pose, then run to you and grab at your camera to see.  I showed them that the little arrow is the button you push to see your photo, and instantly had twenty little fingers all over searching for it.  They see their photo, giggle, squeal, and then run back to take more.  I found myself turning to one child, Danelle, and putting the strap around her neck.  I showed her where the button was to take the picture, "Push here" I said, she said "La", which I gather means "here", and within two seconds, she had it down.  She looked at me with wide eyes that she now had control of the camera, smiled, and ran to her friends to take their photos.  This happened with about ten children, then I ran to my bag to pull out my little green camera (which is about 1,000 times less expensive!) and let them pass it around.  The following photos are what they did on their very first day of taking photographs.  It was so fun to see them pose like little models with their friends, I saw their attitudes come out as they tried to put their most serious faces on to look cool.  Turns out, kids are kids, no matter if they live in the big city or in the bush.    

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Familiar little faces.

The minute I stepped off the truck and onto the community center playground, I see a little body running towards me, her arms wide open as she barrels right into me with a hug.  It was my sweetest little girl from last year, I recognized her straight away.  She wore a red and white polka dot dress the last time I saw her, today she had a denim one on.  I said to her, "I remember you!  You have a beautiful red polka dot dress."  She nodded, I couldn't tell if she understood me, but she looked up at me and smiled with those big brown eyes and bald head.  She squeezed me again, then grabbed my hand.  Yes, I was back. This is what I had been waiting for.  

Then the others started running in, one by one, I searched their little faces to see if I recognized them too.  Yes!  There was the little guy that gave us all those cool arms-crossed poses last year, and the girl from the balloon shot, and then the cutie that had stickers all over her face... I was so happy to see them, I hugged as many as I could and then felt the insane smile overcome my face as they all piled around me, I didn't have enough hands for them to grab.  

As I looked around the community center, I saw the swings still standing proudly that Steve and Ted built, the play set we put together was crawling with children, the trampoline was dug into the ground (and had only just ripped last week, Lindsay told me, which I was astounded by due to the number of kids on that thing at any given time!), the garden we planted was overgrown but lush.  I walked over to the swing set and started brushing off the dirt around the cement at the end of the poles.  We had all carved our names there last year, and I wanted to see them appear for me again.  Steve... Ted... 2012... How sweet it was to see our names and remember the day we all kneeled around and celebrated our friendships and our time at Dumphries.  

We spent the next couple hours painting a beautiful mural on the side of the building, the three other women volunteers are Michelangelo incarnate, I swear!  In between (probably more honestly, most of the time),  I wandered out and around to find the children and take photos, cuddle, and play.  I gave them my camera and showed them how to take a photo and also how to see it, and especially how to make sure the strap was around their necks!  One after the other took turns being photographer, and in seeing their excitement and pride in being able to take a photograph themselves, I knew that this trip was destined to be.  As we left Dumphries, they ran after our backie (pick up truck in SA) waving goodbye and squealing.  What a beautiful sight.  The following photo was taken by a boy called Shade, a star photographer has just been born.  

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First morning in Ulu

I've been dreaming of the early morning sunrise in Ulusaba for the past year and a half, longing to sit on the stoop with my Nescafe and breath in the African bush air.  The mornings here are precious, there is a golden hue on everything, bird's songs are all around you, the air is calm and peaceful.  Then the lodge workers begin to stir and you see beautiful people walk past speaking in a language you've never heard, they turn to me and smile & wave, greeting me with a "Good morning, how are you?"  I love how everyone says hello, everyone waves.  

We are going to the village this morning at 8:30 to work until the sun gets too hot, probably around 1 pm. The community center is getting a coat of paint and a mural, I look forward to being back there to see how it looks a year later.  Lindsay told me the trampoline just broke, which I was amazed about because there are always at least ten kids pouncing on it at any given time.  

I laugh at how it took me six days to get here, but it was worth every minute.  The journey here was epic, meeting beautiful friends on the flights, reconnecting with a special soul in Jo'burg, being taken in by a lovely woman in Nelspruit, and getting a ride the last two hours to Ulu, seeing giraffe, elephant, and zebra in our first five minutes inside the gates.  

So much to write, I could be here at my laptop all day long... so for now I'll sign off and go enjoy the morning air some more...  Photos to come later!  

Yellow moon arriving

Whenever I am anxious or afraid of a future journey, I just need to think back to this day. 

What amazing people I've met so far, and it's technically only the first 'day'... Even though it must have been two at leas.  I mean, I've eaten four dinners, slept three times, had five rounds of wine-bubbly, watched two movies and all of the latest season of The Mindy Project (which, by the way, I believe is the best show on non-tv, and not only do I have a girl crush on her, but find myself actually wanting to BE her.  Well, maybe not, but I do love the show.)  Anyways, this kind of adventure is what I live for.  Starting off, I thought this journey was going to be so long and so difficult, until I would finally reach my destination of Ulusaba.  What became clear over the past 24 hours, and what I probably knew deep down to begin with, is that the journey really IS the magic, not just the destination.  Meeting Nicole from Melbourne in the stand by line and loving her to bits and pieces, laughing out loud in the Etihad lounge amongst the room full of austere men, having Peter the barman run over to keep our glasses full and snap shots of us with our iphones, waiving a cheerful goodbye to everyone as I bolted out the door, running late because I couldn't tear myself away from the fun we were having with conversations about travel, life, growing up, and being kindred spirits;  the luck of being seated next to another Nicole from the US/Portugal/Brazil on board the flight, (she was supposed to be working the flight but had a cold soar, and had to call out sick because of the strict appearance standards that Etihad holds) chatting about the flying life, Abu Dhabi, and adventure;  striking up conversation with Jason, a native South African from Durban who's job is to deliver boats across the seas and was on his way home until his next assignment;  feeling the camaraderie from the beautiful mixture of international souls that made up the flight crew, all of us finding ways to send little treats to each other...chocolates, bubbly, tea, stories...

I'm so excited to be in South Africa when I step off the plane, happily far away from everything familiar for the next three weeks, surrounded by possibility.  Away from the usual, my heart beat is energized by the little gems of each turn.  I feel wonderfully vulnerable and open, yet admittedly still slightly nervous.  This is a good beginning, and I cheers this last glass of bubbly as I watch the deep, yellow moon outside the window as the faint lights of Africa start to appear below.  Hello again...

The Africa Project: An overveiw

For all of you who are wondering about what I'm doing this month, here's a little glimpse!

As most of you know, last year I was beyond blessed to have been chosen to represent Virgin on an ambassador/mission trip to South Africa.  Little did I know how much I was about to fall in love... The week I spent in Africa was one of, if not the, best week of my life so far.  They say once you go to Africa, a bug bites you, and you will forever dream of returning.  This happened to me in 2005 during my first time there where I spent a month in & around Cape town.  There is indeed something special and unexplainable about it.  I could go on & on, but I'll cut to the chase and share with you my project for 2014.  

I'll be returning to Ulusaba, Richard Branson's private game reserve about eight hours drive from Johannesburg.  

As they did last year, the amazing charitable organization Pride & Purpose will be hosting me, and I am really excited to see everyone again!  My purpose in returning is to embark on a photo project that in turn helps the people of the surrounding village of Dumphries.  I'll be bringing cameras down to teach a bit about photography and how to capture their world using the lens.  I will curate a collection of their photographs to come up with a gallery that we will hang at their community center (which we helped put together last year!)   Visitors from the lodge will have the opportunity to purchase these one of a kind pieces of art, and the money will go directly back into the community. Additionally, I'll be taking portraits of the people who live in the village, as well as the volunteers and staff, and creating a photo documentation of life in & around Ulusaba.  I plan to put together a show back here in San Francisco, and send the proceeds to Pride & Purpose.  

Pride & Purpose

Many people might ask the question, "Why do you have to go so far to volunteer?  Why Africa?  Why not right here in your own backyard?"  I've contemplated this question a lot, and what I have some to realize is this:  When you are far away from anything familiar and comfortable, you really have the chance to sink in to what you are doing.  There are no distractions, no Facebook events to attend, no sunny day at Dolores Park to play hookie for, no checking your phone every five minutes for texts.  Your soul gets to really be there, and with that, it gets a little shake up, your senses are heightened, you actually feel yourself living every moment.  This is just my own experience, but it is pretty powerful.  

Returning for this project makes my heart skip.  I am nervous, I have expectations for myself that may or may not get realized, I don't know exactly what I'm doing... But it feels good to be afraid and go anyway.  I have an idea of what I am going for, but I look forward to it morphing into something totally different.  Richard Avedon said, "You have to be surprised for it to be magical."  

If you would like to contribute to this project, please donate to my Indiegogo campaign at http://igg.me/p/623317/x/1052876.  The money I raise will go towards my travel expenses (airfare, bus, cost to check baggage-photo equipment, etc), software for photo editing, and time & cost of preparing the art shows both in Ulusaba and SF.  Each person who contributes will be gifted with an original 8X10 or larger print from Dumphries.

I thank you all tremendously for all of your support, & cheering me on!  I couldn't do this without all of your encouragement.  

 

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