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|| News Item: Posted 2012-01-01

Adventure of a lifetime means lots of preparation

By Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Jum Pui, a long tusked Asian elephant in his 40s, takes a bath with his mahout trainee Chandler Davis on his back, on the property of the Thai Elephants Conservation Center on August 13, 2011.
The call came in on a Tuesday morning in mid May. It was Kevin Connelly, a programs manager at Rustic Pathways, offering me a dream summer job as a documentary photographer and program leader on the company's Southeast Asia trips.

To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement. I remember yelling with excitement while on the phone with Kevin and not being able to sleep the next two nights. I was like, really, no really, you're really going to choose me to do this for you! Initially,

I applied for a spot in New Zealand, Fiji or Cost Rica. I applied and forgot about it because I did not hear from anyone at Rustic for over two months. All of a sudden, three staff photographers/program managers called me for interviews: Ryan Gibbons, Justin Kase Conder and Kevin Connelly, before being offered the summer gig.

First and foremost my responsibility would be to help keep the students safe and contribute to their experience. Secondly, I would get to run around and make moment-based documentary imagery of the students, staff and the native people at the places we visited.

Rustic Pathways is a 27-year-old company that provides high school students year-round travel and community service programs in Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Tanzania, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, China, India, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Mongolia and the United States.

They waited to offer this spot to someone until two weeks before the contract job began. After I got it, I felt totally overwhelmed by the preparation needed for the adventure ahead.

First thing's first, my loving mom is a pediatrician, who didn't want me to go out of fear for all the diseases and illnesses I might be exposed to, so my first concern was keeping myself healthy. What inoculations/vaccines to get? And what drugs should I bring? Addressing these concerns would not only protect me but would take my mom's worrying down at least a notch.

Visiting the Health Service Center For Travelers of Orlando gave me two sore shoulders and protection against Hepatitis A, Flu, Typhoid and Tetanus. A trip to a local pharmacy equipped me with Doxycyclin for Malaria prevention, Ciprofloxacin for traveler's diarrhea, Florastor for mild diarrhea symptoms, Claritin for allergy relief, Azithromycin for strep throat, Ondansetron for vomiting relief, Moxeza for pink eye, Ciprodex for swimmers ear, Sting Eze Max 2 and Hydrocortisone cream for insect bit relief, One A Day, PB8 pro-biotic, Advil and a solid first aid kit.

OK, I just protected my dear mother's sanity as well as I could. Now for the good stuff, the photo gear and how to carry and protect it? I ended up bringing a Nikon D3, 14-24, 24-70, 50 f1.4, 80-200, 105 f2.8 micro VR, 300 f4, two SB900s, SC-29 cord, 3x Pocket Wizard Flex TT5 and a AC3, Zoom H4N, Expodisc, Hoodloupe, Butterfly sensor brush, 40 gigs of CF cards, an assortment of lens and flash filters, 15-inch MacBook Pro, two Lexar 800 CF readers, LaCie 320-gig external HD, and a Pacsafe 85 for a little security. All this fit comfortably in a Think Tank airport acceleration and modular/skin combo belt set with room for my drugs and other stuff I needed to keep handy.

If I wrote about all the places I visited and happenstances that occurred in my life last summer, it would be a 300-plus-page book, so I'm going to focus on a few topics I think might interest other photographers, elaborate on a few experiences, and briefly mention all of the places I visited. I'll start with a question I repeatedly got from my friends. They wanted to know how I was communicating with the native people since I couldn't speak their language. Well, actually many spoke English, but for anyone who didn't, I pretty much held the same attitude I use back home when meeting people of a different culture than my own. A big smile, a little effort and genuine interest go a long way!

There was no way for me to grasp all the proper mannerisms from each country I visited in the short time I was there, but I did my best to learn as many as I could ASAP. In Thailand, for example, it is rude to touch anyone older than a young child on the head. It is rude to step over people who are sitting down OR their stuff. It is rude to act angry or be loud in public.

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

In Battambang, Cambodia we visited a past death camp and current temple site, where we met a gentleman who devoted himself to keeping the memories of the Cambodian Genocide victims alive.
No matter what kind of floor a person has in his or her home, whether it is marble, dirt, concrete or bamboo, everyone should take off their shoes before entering. Waving hello is replaced by wai, which is pressing the palms and fingers together and bowing your head a little. Thai people perform a wai to different heights based on the social status or age of the person they're greeting: chest level, chin level or forehead level.

Rustic's SE Asia base is in Thailand, so that's the country I began this adventure. The first two weeks were spent at orientation in Udon Thani and traveling around various towns and cities with other group leaders. Rustic wanted us to get a taste for some of the places we would be bringing students.

We briefly saw Chiang Mai, Mae Sariang, the Pa Hee Village, Noh Bo, Mae Hong Song and Chiang Rai. My first trip with students was a "come with nothing" service trip to the Noh Bo village, where one of Rustic's local staffers, Woot, grew up. The students and staff on this trip were fantastic, eager to work, willing to try new things and rarely complained about anything. Within Noh Bo is a school where we stayed and performed our service projects.

Over the course of four groups' stay, the students would build a new bathroom, replace the wood walls of the main school building with concrete ones, and rebuilt the stage in the assembly hall out of concrete. Since I wasn't acting as a program leader on this trip, I was free to venture out and explore the area with Woot from time to time.

Overlooking the school was a small mountain that I desperately wanted to climb. Woot said, "Sure, I can take you. Do you want to go up the hard way, medium way or the easy way?" The tougher the route, the less time it would take to climb.

Since it was two hours till sunset I chose the hardest way. We started up, and it wasn't too bad at all until we got to a point where I thought I lost the trail. I looked over at Woot, and he was grasping a four-inch-thick vein that straddled the mountain. "We have to climb this about three stories up!" he said. I was like, "Hell no." I honestly could have done it no problem had it not been for the "Batman photo belt" full of lenses I was carrying. We set off for the medium way, but even that turned out to be too steep, treacherous and slippery for me. Fail, but at least I'm alive!

On another occasion while riding around with Woot on a motorbike, we literally encountered all the village children and their mothers clustered around a small truck. As I got closer I saw an older monk and two young ones giving away things to everyone there. I switched into documentary mode and made pictures from where I saw fit.

Not too long into this, the older monk started asking me questions. Who are you? What are you doing here? Who brought you? Why are you taking pictures? He didn't seem irritated at all with what I was doing. He just seemed curious. I answered his questions and had a short conversation about photography, and before I knew what hit me, he invited me to stay at his temple as a guest for a month or two, food and shelter included.

All he wanted in exchange was for me to speak English with him while I was there. I thanked him about 20 times, gave him the highest wai I could and had him write down his info. He gave me his full name, two phone numbers and his address. His temple is a five-hour drive from Noh Bo. I see myself taking him up on his offer on a later date!

I only spent four days with this group before I was off to the next group, but leaving wasn't so simple. On our way out of Noh Bo we had to travel over a road that was washed over with mud from heavy rains. Oh, and the road cut through a mountain with a steep drop on one side. We made it most of the way, but there were times when we all had to get out and push the vans around the mountain! I opted to make pictures instead of pushing. LOL.

Next I was suppose to join another "come with nothing" group that would travel into Laos by way of a two-day "slow boat" journey down the Mekong River. Again, all of the students were tough and fun to be around.

Our first village stay was located halfway down a mountain that not even 4x4 trucks opted to descend or climb if the roads were wet. Well, it was raining, and it continued to rain for a week. We spent the four days we had there trying to get the supplies we brought down to the village.

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Chelermchai Kositpiphat created Wat Rong Khun, The White Temple, in Chiang Rai, Thailand from his vision of heaven. Construction began of this contemporary Buddhist and Hindu temple in 1997 and finished in 2008.

Udon Thani


Chiang Mai

Mae Hong Song & a Bunch of Stops Along the Way

Pai, the Pan Pae Village, and the Bann Sai Ngan Village

Noh Bo, Thailand

The White Temple and The Black House in Chiang Rai

Mae Sariang

Pa Hee Village and port into Laos

Next up was an eight-day stay in Luang Prabang, Laos, where I bounced in between three groups of students. The entire country of Laos has a population close to that of Bangkok. Luang Prabang is one of my favorite cities I visited in all of SE Asia.

It is not too big but not too small, clean, historic and charming, yet a little seedy. Plus, there is stuff to do and see everywhere! The places we saw include the golden Vat Temple Manorom, which occupies the oldest temple site in the city, the All Lao Elephant Camp, and the Phousy Temple, which is located in the center and highest point of the city. At night there was a HUGE and color-filled market that sells 99 percent handmade, non-touristy crafts. All around the city is a network of stunning waterfalls, some of which have been modified into pools with rope swings and zip lines.

A short boat ride outside the city is a whiskey village and a cave that contains thousands of broken Buddha statues. Last but not least there's the massage parlors. Over my three-month stay in SE Asia, I racked up 25 massages. I got oil massages, Thai massages, foot massages, soft and hard massages, massages by men and women, both young and old, and I even got a massage by a blind masseuse! But I never got, nor did I look for, one with a happy ending, in case any of you with dirty minds were wondering (LOL)! They cost between $3 and $9 per hour!!!!

Boat Ride down the Mekong River

Luang Prabang

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Photo by Octavian Cantilli

Halong Bay in Vietnam, which might soon be recognized as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes.
From Laos, I flew into Vietnam to co-lead 11 high school students from ages 14 to 19 on a two-week photo trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. I was nervous as hell, but why, I asked myself. I know enough about image making to keep the interest of a bunch of high school students. So far, all of the students I worked with seemed to love me! I already spoke to the other leader a few times on the phone, and she sounded cool. Just relax, I told myself. You got this! Well, the next two weeks became a real test for me. The students were all good kids who listened to us regarding our efforts to keep them safe. However, there were some cliques and not everyone liked each other. Most of the students would rather hear their leaders tell stories about relationships or their college days than talk about photography.

A 14-year-old girl bought a bottle of whiskey with a cobra and a scorpion inside. I confiscated it from her and refused to pay her the inflated price she paid. Later I learned she wrote some awful things about me on her evaluation of the trip. But probably the most frustrating thing on my end was the tension with the other leader. We didn't agree on what to focus our photo lessons on and our personalities didn't mesh that well. Toward the end, it became about keeping things fun.

At the end of the day, that was what these kids deserved and wanted more than anything else. This part of the trip made me remember and gave me a new respect for my intro to photojournalism professor at the University of Florida. Damn, his job is hard! Maybe those two weeks was karma coming back at me. Professor Freeman, I'm so sorry!

It felt pretty ironic to be juggling all this while visiting some of the most visually stimulating places I've ever been to. Vietnam struck me as a lot more fast-paced than Thailand or Laos, and the traffic congestion and number of mopeds on the roads in Hanoi were mind blowing. I could easily spend a month making pretty documentary imagery for an essay on personal transportation there.

Among the cities we visited included Halong Bay, Ninh Binh Grottoes, Saigon, floating markets, Cu Chi, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Mount of Sam. It was a little uncomfortable to be at the Cu Chi Tunnels watching a video about the "American War" and having the U.S. be referred to as the enemy. This was the only hint of anti-American sentiment that I felt, pretty good for a county that has only been officially friendly with the U.S. for 16 years.

A huge treat for me was getting to spend two hours on the third and fourth floors of the War Remittance Museum where large documentary images by some of the founders of photojournalism including Robert Capa and Eddie Adams were on display!

Halong Bay

Ninh Binh Grottoes

Cu Cui Tunnels plus a few more stops


No adjective I know can sum up the bipolar feelings I felt in Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered millions of people, including much of the country's intellectual and professional class, Cambodia was arguably the most advanced and culturally rich country in S.E. Asia.

The resilience and strength of its people is evident today by the fact that despite most of the world being in a recession, the textiles, agriculture, construction, garments, and tourism sectors in Cambodia are all going strong. The places we visited included the Khmer Palace, numerous killing fields, S-21, Phnom Penh, Battambang, a bamboo railroad, an eight-hour boat ride down the twisty Siem Reap River to get to Angkor Wat, and three villages that specialize in making pottery, silver jewelry and bricks.

At the pottery village on our way to Battambang, we first stopped at the biggest shop where we met a British guy who was employing locals to mass produce all kinds of wares. He would ship the pottery to western countries to be sold for 20-30 times his cost. For three dollars each a few of the students and I purchased a half-dollar-sized clay turtle with some fancy glaze on its shell. Happy with our purchase, we decided to continue to explore the village.

We walked maybe 200 feet up the road and were greeted by an older woman who was trying to wave us into her hut. She wore a great smile, so I was intrigued to check it out. She, too, turned out to be a potter. I found another turtle of the same size but of a different design, so I inquired how much it would cost. Twenty-five cents was her reply! I gave her three dollars. Then, I eyed a beautiful watermelon sized piggy bank. One dollar she happily quoted me. I gave her a ten.

Before you knew it, six of the students with me bought over half of what she was selling for 5-10 times what she was asking for. The 82-year-old woman was in tears while still carrying the same huge smile she used to get us to come in. I hope the students never forget her!

Phnom Penh


Down the Siem Reap River

Angkor Wat

Next, I traveled back to Vietnam to co-lead a group of seven on a weeklong service immersion tour of Ban Hang and Hanoi. Ban Hang is a small rice village in the northern Karst Hills of Vietnam. We spent three days there helping to restore the community center, playing in the local water hole and exploring the area.

We stayed with a family that offers home stays to foreigners trekking through. On our way out, the family told us that we were the longest staying guests they ever had, and we're welcome back any time. The combination of this extremely pretty village, a hilarious yet mature beyond their years group of students, and staff that meshed well, made for some very memorable good times.

Ban Hang

My last two weeks working for Rustic were spent at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, more specifically, the Mahout Training Center. A mahout is an elephant trainer and guardian. Two groups of about 10 students spent a week learning to command and care for an elephant. They rode them, washed them, fed them, shoveled their dung, learned numerous ways to mount them and had all kinds of fun in between.

Being around these majestic animals for two weeks straight gave me an all-new level of appreciation for how special they are. They are now my favorite animal, but don't worry, I am not crazy enough to want one as a pet. Come to find out there are two elephant conservation centers within two hours in either direction of where I live. I will certainly be volunteering my photo services to these places!

Thai Elephants Conservation Camp

By now some of you wise PJ vets might be thinking, "Yeah, yeah, you made some nice images and had a great time, but were you paid enough to be able to do this for a living?" Well, I was paid, but not that much. Plus, all of my expenses were taken care of. I obviously was looking at the experience gained to be my biggest reward, but I didn't let my enthusiasm completely overwhelm all business sense.

When I was initially being interviewed by Ryan and Justin, who are both Sports Shooter members, one of the things we talked about was usage rights. They needed to be able to use the images for their marketing purposes for as long as Rustic wanted, so the wording we agreed on was "unlimited usage in perpetuity." I would be able to keep copyright of all of my images.

The only exception for usage on my end is that I can't sell an image depicting a student or staff of Rustic for advertising purposes. This was a deal breaker on their end, so I agreed to it. And that's the contract I signed. So what's next? Well, I'm making a 100-plus-page photo book that will be organized in a unique way for sale, marketing and gift purposes. All of my summer images are available for license to clients through my PhotoShelter page at

I'm exploring interest into the fine art and travel photo market, and last but not least, I'm seeking help to apply for grants to fund some of my new story ideas. This last summer totally rejuvenated me creatively, and I now have friends living literally all over the world. The only thing I'm struggling with is the fact that traveling is addictive and I'm already a full-blown addict! I've been back at home in Orlando for close to three months now and I've already traveled to Nicaragua for three weeks and Michigan for two weeks...

(Octavian Cantilli is freelance photographer based in Florida. You can view examples of his work at his Sports Shooter member page: and his personal website --

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