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An Intimate Tale of Photography and Retreat

How a trip to Isabela, Puerto Rico changed our lives and the way we drink orange Juice.

There are trips you take with the family, and then are trips you take to change the soul. What came out of our recent retreat to Isabela, Puerto Rico, was one of those trips that changed our soul and adopted us a new extension of our family.

It was 3 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, November 3 when we awoke to head to St Louis Lambert International Airport. There is not nearly enough coffee in the world to prepare us for such an early rise, but we managed to wipe the sleep from our eyes and head out the door with bags and cups in hand. Nothing screams “determination to escape” like standing in line in an airport at 4 a.m. with a bunch of people resembling something out of “The Walking Dead.” If you were to eliminate the static sounds from the airport speakers, you would have heard low grunts and moans of the crowd wondering what the hell they were doing out of bed so early.

With time slowly dragging, Jay and I made it through security, and to our gate with enough time to spare to order another cup of coffee, and pray the side effects of it didn’t hit during our two-hour flight to Charlotte; which would be our switch flight before heading to Puerto Rico. I have never been a fan of flying, but there is something majestic about watching a sunrise from 30,000 feet, while drinking little complimentary cups of orange juice.

“Folks we’d like to thank you for choosing American Airlines for your traveling needs this morning,” echoed through the plane. “We’d like to direct your attention to the front of the plane as our wonderful staff go over the safety guidelines of today’s flight.”

This was the moment the trip set in, we are officially on our way, and there is no turning back!!! What would it be like? Would the people be friendly? Can you drink the water? What if we don’t get along with the other people, we were set to meet during our four-day retreat? What if they run out of orange juice during the flight? So many questions began rushing through my head.

As I looked over to see Jay’s reaction, it looked like the only question he had was, “Can I get a pillow and blanket, because this coffee is doing nothing!!!”

Little did either of us know, we were on our way to a life changing experience. What was supposed to be a simple, small photo conference, ended up being a spiritual and physical cleansing of negative thoughts and ego. But not before our one-hour layover in Charlotte, and five-hour flight to San Juan. You could see the excitement all over our faces. I mean how could someone not be excited to sit in the back of the plane, next to the bathroom, while every single person who walked by managed to hit you in the head with their asses. Even more surprising then the trip we were on, was the surprise we didn’t end up with pink eye from all the booty bumping love we received by taking an aisle seat.

However, we made it!!! The plane landed, the rear door opened to gather bags, and the humidity hit like a fog rolling in a scary movie. Seriously the vents started letting out this steam that looked like we all just jumped out of the DeLorean in Back to the Future, and Jay and I realized that the cold weather we left in St. Louis, had us way over dressed for San Juan.

First impressions are everything, and San Juan definitely left a lasting impression. The colors, the culture, the short walk from plane to gate, was simply perfect. As we ventured outside the doors of the airport, we could see Mountains, forests, beaches, and cabs around every turn. We also came to the understanding that adding an “a” at the end of each American word, was not the same as speaking Spanish.

With time to kill and knowing a friend of ours had arrived a day earlier, we caught a cab and made our way to Old San Juan. Hungry, tired, and excited we took the eight-mile drive to Castillo de San Cristobal; this would be our first real site of crashing waves, rugged rocks, and old landscape. Beautifully intoxicating was our first reaction. As we made our way to the old fort, a sound of rumbling came from our bellies. Lucky for us there was an authentic food stand just below the hill.

“Excuse-a!?!,” Jay mumbled, as though saying it softly would hide the fact, we knew nothing appropriate in the native tongue. “Can-a I-a get-a few-a empanadas-a?”

“Yes sir, would you like a soft drink as well?” the gentleman replied with a large smile on his face. Thrown back, and slightly embarrassed Jay said yes, and asked for a grape soda. This would be our first lesson. When traveling to a foreign land, even if it is U.S. Territory, it is a good idea to bring cash, and contact your bank to let them know you are traveling to said land. Thankfully, we had a little cash on us.  What we didn’t have were hiking shoes, which would have been a good idea to bring, as everywhere you go in Old San Juan is uphill; even when you think your walking downhill. We quickly understood why it seemed like everyone in Puerto Rico had amazing butts, and obesity was far from being an epidemic.

The view of Puerto Rico culture was abundant. Even standing in front of the empanada stand in Old San Juan left us in awe as the colors, people, and lifestyle appeared beautiful throughout the area.

Buns on fire, we reached the Outer Defenses of the 16th Century Spanish built Citadel, but with limited time before we had to connect with the rest of our group, we were only able to explore the outer walls; though future visits are being constructed to really explore the entirety of this magnificent structure.

Time was finally speeding up, and it was time to meet with our group. Down the hill we headed to wait for our fearless leader, host, friend/mentor Chadwick Braithwaite of Faces Photography, who was to pick us up from the base of the fort. As we awaited for Chad to show we got to witness the driving and fashion skills of the native people. Besides the few who seemed to forget they weren’t wearing pants; the people were awesome to watch. It was like every other car was a little sand buggee vehicle, with speakers sporting out the back, and roofs removed. All you could hear throughout the town was various music from fast and upbeat to relaxed and meditative. However, put together it was more like a battle of remixes and club music for people with more than one personality. Motorcycles weaved in and out of traffic like they were hand fashioning a large blanket, and almost everyone had a smile on their face. To this day I don’t know if they were smiling because of the bliss of island life, or at the site of us sitting at the wall pale skinned and clearly out of our element.

Thirty minutes had passed, and Chad was late. A tad cranky, and tired from the flight and time jumps, we started counting the motorcycle riders that wore turtle helmets. I believe we ended on 56 before seeing Chad pull up with a van full of people, and a gleaming smile.

“Dude!!! You made it!!!” Chad said. “Now get in, we have a two-hour drive to other side of the Island.” Bags thrown in and faces of equally exhausted people made our greeting. For those that have never driven in Puerto Rico, it is a story and site all on its own. If they want over, they are coming over. If they want to stop in the middle of the road, guess what? They are going to stop. This is the type of area that will truly test your ability to road rage and drive while still enjoying the sites.

As we ventured down the road Chad was telling us about what to expect over the next few days, and how to get the most out of our trip. He also told us about these drinks that resemble Capri Suns, but for adults; in other words, 15% alcohol and the feeling of being a kid again. So of course, we had to stop and get a few. Other then the drinks, the stop was pretty straight forward. No funny quips to tell, or anything out of the normal, so with drinks in hand, and loaded back on the bus we began our drive further into the island headed for Isabela, Puerto Rico.

Now our seating was not to far different on the bus, then it was on the plane. Tight, cozy, and seemingly constructed for non-full-figured men. By the time we arrived in Isabela, I had almost lost all feeling in my knees and feet from being balled up on the seats. But we made it!!! It was over 12-hours since we woke up in the cold confines of St. Louis and made our way to the beautiful 75-degree environment of Isabela. The bus doors opened, and all you could hear were the chirps of the bugs, and the crashing of the waves of the ocean on the shore less then 100-yards away from our bungalow. It was like a symphony of new. Quite beautiful actually.

We took our bags to the room, which we were sharing with a couple others from the trip, and then made our way down to the small resort patio. “Dinner is ready!!!,” was heard being yelled from the bar door. “Hell yea!!!” was being yelled form our bellies as the only food we had so far on this trip was little bags of pretzels, and the couple empanadas we had back in Old San Juan. We quickly grabbed our plates, loaded them with unprocessed local cuisine, and inhaled our food with extreme Dyson force tendencies. Let’s be honest for a moment, we ate our food like starving lions on fresh prey.

P.S. it was soooooooo good!!!

These bungalows were our home for the four days we stayed in Parador Villas Del Mar Hau, just outside of Isebela, Puerto Rico

After devouring our nutrients, Jay and I had to take a moment a let the sounds and sites set in. Here we were, first adventure over the ocean, no kids, no wives, a lot of alcohol, awesome people, and nothing but relaxing opportunity for the next four days.

“So, what should we do first?” Jay asked me. My reply may have been unexpected because the only thing I wanted right then and there was the world’s biggest glass of orange juice. I told him I’d be right back and made my way to the bar.

“Hi buddy!” I said to the bartender, who would later become the coolest person on the planet to me. “Can I get a big cup of orange juice?”

“Certainly!” he replied. “What else would you like in it?” Seeing as everyone else was already ordering tequila shots, pina coladas, baby beers, and everything else you would expect from a bar on the beach, I simply told him, “Just more orange juice please,” a phrase that would follow me the rest of the trip, but we will get back to that in a bit. 

Night had set in, the time jumps, compressed traveling, and belly full of food had made a vicious appearance, and bed was screaming for us to come sleep. Barefoot and sluggishly, I made my way to bed and Jay made his way into a bottle tequila and introductions amongst the group, but we will get more into his side of the story a little later on.

I awoke the next day extremely early. I threw on my flippy floppy’s, made my way down to Montones Beach in enough time to catch my first sunrise in over 20-years. It was so peacefully quiet. I could see the shadows of the ridges set back into the water, the crest of light slowly opening its morning eyes, and the smell of clean saltwater air filling my lungs.  I must have walked the sands for over an hour, using my camera to capture every turn, and wave crash I could see. It was the first time I had been alone in years to just observe and breathe. It was then I knew this was not going to be some ordinary, “Let’s get away trip.”

After capturing some new and exciting landscape shots, I snuck through the tree line just south of me, until I found a road. I knew I had to keep the ocean to my right as I headed back to the morning group. I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee, and orange juice was a constant craving. Covered in sand from my big toes to my upper calves. I walked onto the patio just in time to catch breakfast, and my first cup of coffee in Puerto Rico. I had always dreamed of this moment…. Leaned over the railing, starring out onto the wide sweep of blue water, while the ocean wind blew elegantly across my face. I know poetic, right?

In the moment it was the perfect cup of coffee. On the pallet, it was horrid. I am used to French Vanilla creamer and have become accustomed to the taste. However, as the cup disappeared, I glanced over my shoulder and saw it…. It was the orange juice!!! Let me explain really quick, if you haven’t picked up on it already, I love, love, love orange juice. I drink it at all the weddings I shoot, and at least a gallon a week by myself. Now back to our story.

Our first class was about to start, and the first change in our lives. We had two choices that morning.  “Emotional Posing and Female Photography,” with Raquel Acevedo – native to Isabela, and professional photographer, or “Getting on Googles Good Side,” understanding SEO, Google, and how to stay on the positive side of Google, with professional elopement photographers. Nate & Megan Kantor of Cedar & Pines. Jay and I felt it was better meant for us to be at the Google class then other because we thought our purpose of the trip was to better the business side of Shane Michael Studios.

I learned in that class that I should not second guess what I know to be right for us. Everything I felt we should have been doing as a company was true. More personality and less trying to shoot and conduct business like everyone else. More interaction for the experience, and less regurgitating someone else’s ideas of success. After all, we can not be the only ones that think about life the way we do, or how we can make a better impact on the world. Telling more stories, like this one and how these sessions and relationships make us feel… In other words, being more human, even in business.

We sat attentively for two hours, which we could have spent the entire day, picking Nate & Megan’s brain on this topic, and took away so much more. However, the biggest question I had for a moment, was which one was Cedar, and which one was Pine. I would later come to the understanding that Nate is in fact Pine. We gathered after class with drinks in hand, awaiting lunch and what the next two classes would be. Can anyone guess what I had to drink? If you guessed orange juice, you would be correct.

It was then I was about to learn my second lesson. In Puerto Rico, they eat rice at every meal. Plantains are also somehow incorporated into every meal. This only poses a problem if you have a sensitivity to heavy meals, as Jay would find out, finally, four days later. But now it was time for our afternoon classes, and we were both pretty excited for this one; “Introduction to Film Photography & How to Hybrid,” with Heather Nan of Heather Nan Photography out of Salt Lake City, Utah. 

I have always been a digital photographer, but always had a deep appreciation to learn more about film and its roots. Jay on the other hand has a small background in film and was definitely more up to speed then I was in this class. I was fumbling around that camera like a teenage boy trying to figure out a bra strap. Heather had me shooting with a medium format Pentax, and a super old Canon Range finder that only seemed to work for Chad. I hit the beach with my Pentax, suitcase of questions, and a prayer that at least one of these 16 images come out ok. Jay on the other hand hit the beach with a fresh tight man-bun, khaki shorts, a reflector, a bag of DSLR Canon Cameras, and the makings of a small JC Penny Studio – with flare.

Heather had the model set and began guiding us through all the ins and outs of film. How the film you get (200, 400, 800) is the ISO of your camera, to how different manufactures of film are race based on the color structures (skin tones). Although it was only 16 pictures, I felt kind of cool. I’m on the beach with some the worlds most amazing photographers, learning about how to be a better photographer. How to appreciate where the industry started and seeing how it can still be used today. However, I cannot forget watching Jay walk backwards and trip ass first over a sand boulder. Luckily, he and his traveling studio were not harmed by the comedic disaster.

Upon finishing up the afternoon class a small group of us decided it was time to play in the ocean. After all we were in Puerto Rico, and the water was clear blue and begging for it. Off came the shirts, off came the flippy floppy’s, and there went Jay, some new friends, and myself running into the ocean like a scene from Baywatch; minus the speedos, and Pamela Anderson slow run.

The water was warm, the waves hitting the skin were like a brilliant massage table, and the sun roasted our skin like a pig at a luau. Lesson number three, when visiting a place this close to the equator…. bring sunblock; a lot of sunblock. We spent quite a bit of time playing in the water. Other than hitting the bar for some drinks here and there, the remaining afternoon was spent splashing and basking in the ocean water. Jay had his beer, I had my orange juice, and life was blissfully wonderful.

“Dinner is ready,” screamed someone from the patio. “Want to bet there is rice and plantains with dinner brother?” I snickered to Jay as we wrestled to get our flip flops on while still in the water. The trick with the flip flops is to sit on your butt and elevate your feet a tad above the water. We made our way back to the patio and low and behold, there it was rice, plantains, and we believe lasagna…. Possibly. Jay grabbed his plate and a beer. I grabbed mine and another beautiful cup of orange juice.

“You sure do drink a lot of orange juice,” said Ryan Sparks, friend of Chads, and professional bartender. “I can’t help it.” I told him. “I love the stuff and drink it all the time. Its almost like a fetish really.”

Ryan laughed and made me another. I had so many glasses by the first night of this trip, I know longer had to ask for a drink. It was already poured and waiting with every meal for me. After every walk by the bar, there it was. A new cold cup of orange juice. Unaware how much I could drink, Ryan actually went to the town store, and bought about five more gallons. As much as I would love to say there was plenty left over at the end of the trip, there was none.

We spent the remainder of the night as a group. Getting to know each other, drinking, telling jokes, and not all wondering about the cold deceitful weather back home. For the group, tequila shots and Corona became a new game. but for me bed became a necessity. Day one was officially over for me, and day two was going to quickly behind.

The second day started a little later then the previous. No sunrises today, but the cold shower, sandy toes, and lack of a washcloth helped aid me in waking up by 6 a.m. to enjoy some more alone time. Little did I know that today would be a breakthrough day for me.

Life is always better with Corona, and a splash of Tequila.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to take this trip was to meet and learn from a man that became way more then a mentor and friend; Robert J. Hill – business coach & professional wedding photographer. He would become a spiritual lifter for me and where I was in my head. After listening to his story, where he was in life, and how he overcame the ego and judgement of the industry, I knew he would not only relate to where I was but would be best fit for helping me figure out how to get out of my own way. Robert hosted a class that was geared around “Working Less & Making More.” This was not just a class on financial gain, but personal assessment, and getting behind a person’s ego to observe instead of in front of it being controlled. Every word he spoke was like a page right out of my very own story, and I couldn’t help but cry. In a room full of strangers, I wept like a first-time parent changing a diaper. It was a reality check. It was uplifting. But most importantly for me, it was my path to closure and acceptance.

I have never really found myself to be deserving of my accomplishments, and therefore was constantly trying to prove I belong in this industry. Working nonstop to escape the thoughts holding me back, and the strength to accept I deserve to be happy. I truly am a blessed man. I sat for as long as I could with Robert, but the emotions were to much and I had to step out. I would later talk with him one on one and find my breakthrough peace.

Later that night we would find ourselves sitting on the balcony of the resort, just a few yards from the beach. He would ask why I felt how I do? Why I chose the path I chose? And who I am… not to be confused with what I do. We sat and talked for hours… him with his baby beers, and me with my orange juice. He asked me to close my eyes and just listen. Listen to the waves hitting the shore. Listen to the air blow past my face. Listen to the subtle noise in the distance of life being lived in nature. He said, “Let your thoughts go. Let them simply happen. Observe them, don’t try and understand them, just observe.”

I sat there for 20 minutes just listening, and for the first time in my life simply let go. Breath after breath, sound after sound, I felt lighter. Stronger, and more focused. I felt free. What I had experienced was my first try at meditation, and I finally understood how it worked. He then told me more about his story, and how was were I am. He told me how he found meditation and decided to explore it further. I doubt I could ever meet his dedication to it, but it is something I will definitely continue doing myself. Robert told me the story of how he spent 10 days, 10 hours a day, in a room full of people, sitting in silence meditating, and how it was the hardest thing he has ever endured. Robert explained how he wanted to quit but allowed them to talk him into staying the course. For him it was beyond life changing, for me it was beyond my foreseen future.

We eventually headed back to join the group, still feeling refreshed and ready for the world, we spent the night drinking and laughing. Everyone with their drink, and me with my glass of orange juice. The day wasn’t over yet though. It was time to swim in the ocean yet again, but this time at night. Lesson number four. When swimming in the ocean at night, be mindful of sea urchins. They will spike you in the butt cheek as our friend and Photo Rehab Mentor Haley Nord would find out the hard way. Everyone made it safely back to their bungalow, and sleep came fast for most of us.

Still on my high from the day before, I woke up excited about what day three could possibly bring. I felt like a wondrous kid again, adventurous and curious for the unexpected. As I placed my house slippers on, headed down to the bar, I would again find my faithful drink ready to go. In the cooler, hidden under the bag of ice, rested the magically energetic orange juice. I poured my glass, walked down the pier, and looked for some reflective time to myself. There were two classes set for today. Haley Nord on “How to Create a Marketing Plan with a Killer Brand,” and Heather Hall, professional photographer and owner of Strictly Bella Photography out of Orlando Florida. Heather walked through steps and practices to create a family connection in harsh light. I was lucky enough to attend both and learned a great deal on how to better structure and expand on the Shane Michael Studios brand.

After dinner that evening, which again featured rice, plantains, and something we believe to be goulash of leftovers, Jay and I had sometime to reflect on our partnership, his relationship with his wife, my relationship with my own wife, and where we saw ourselves heading. However, I don’t want to bore you, the reader, with emotional details and bromances. I want to tell you about the Tasmanian Space jams onesie I got talked into putting on and danced around the resort. You can see the video below. It was time to let go and enjoy our final night in this amazing place.

I smiled remembering the stories from our trip:

The beach dog Rico that our friend Eva Utley became attached too. Rico would follow Eva everywhere. Hell, he even slept on her patio floor over night to follow her again the next day. In the end we found out Rico was dropped off two weeks prior and just left behind. He ultimately found a home with Alex Mabrey and will be in great hands. I’m sure he will miss the beach but will be fine with the spoiled attention he is sure to get.

Or, how we discovered in the world of using safety words, purple avocado would not practically work. Thanks Samantha D.Anna, Rachel Neckar, Brad & Jennifer Baugh… you all really opened our eyes to safety first in the home place.

How Evan Stowers took time from his vacation to cut my hair on the porch of a bungalow, on a beach, looking out towards the ocean. I think we both had emotional moment there.

I could seriously spend hours and hours telling all the tales of what we learned and experienced in Isabela, Puerto Rico. But the biggest thing we learned was how to support each other. How to let go and grow. How it’s important to be selfish to be selfless, and how you can never deny a great glass of orange juice. I also learned if you don’t know who you are as a person you cannot accurately describe what you do for a passion. Anyone can take a pretty picture. Anyone can send a brochure with prices and packages, but what do you bring to the table that separates you from everyone else.

So many great people met that will forever be a part of me. People with like minds, and the want to help those around them succeed. No matter the struggle, the distance, or the reason most problems can be solved with good people, and little cups of orange juice.