Although Nathaniel is my birth name, everyone chooses their favorite: Nathan, Nate, Nat, or Natty; so you can have your pick. I typically do freelance work for TV and film, but have also done a host of seasonal work. Last winter’s attempt at instructing in Europe didn't work out, so I came back to Colorado and taught kids at Winter Park. My travels started about 5 years ago when I studied abroad in Costa Rica. I fell in love with the beauty of the natural world and am doing my best to capture it before it’s too late. I've since traveled through North, Central, and South America, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Southeast Asia; making it to 23 countries and 4 continents so far. The variety and adventure in meeting new cultures, people, and scenery is what pulls me away from home to discover new challenges.
What sparked your interest in travel photography? What was your first travel experience?
I credit my interest in travel to my parents, though they still seem to be confused by it. Throughout my childhood our Chevy Astro + pop-up camper combo made it all over the US. We visited family, national parks, state parks, and the crowd favorite, amusement parks. I played around with disposable cameras on family trips, but real photography didn't come until later. I started taking photography more seriously in college after my roommate gave me open use of his Nikon D80. When we both went to study abroad, he graciously offered up a spare for me to take to Costa Rica. As a competitive person, I quickly strove to better my technical skills and arranged to meet with a professor for tips and criticism each week. He kept me motivated with themed assignments, which I supplemented through YouTube and the internet. This amazing opportunity was the foundation of my photography and inspired me to continue on this path.
You have been traveling throughout the world for over three years. How did you plan for this?
My post-grad travel started because I was scared of working. Racked by the fear of commitment, I bounced from Denver to St. Louis, Portland, back to Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, then home to St. Louis again before I left on my first backpacking trip through Central America. When I returned to the US, I was lucky to get connected to the director of a horror movie in Cape Cod. Some members of the crew gave me opportunities in LA and I was able to spend a year there. Freelance work was hardly consistent though, so I used the rest to travel and climb around the western US with my fantastic friends. Before I started my European travels, I flew to the East Coast to work a final job in NY. Afterwards, I landed in Frankfurt then trained to Munich, Italy, Croatia, Vienna, and Prague with a friend from STL. Afterwards, I began my solo travels going through Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia pt. II, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and all the way to Turkey. Weddings brought me back to the states, so I used the time back to ski, climb, hike, and see old friends before starting my next travel series in Korea. I stopped over a fast week to see Hong Kong on my way to Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve now been motor biking throughout Vietnam for 6 weeks and am almost ready to head into Laos.
That’s three years in a nutshell. As a hypocrite promoting sustainability, the basic equation is to work enough to be able to travel, then leave, spend it all, return, and repeat.
Are you traveling by yourself or with others? What have your experiences been like?
I travel both by myself and with others now. I love to have a few weeks with friends, but I also value the time that I travel alone, and that time is necessary for me to get work done. My first backpacking trip was with friends. Some stayed longer than others, but in total I only spent about a week alone. That trip was a needed introduction to travel and gave me the confidence to travel solo. It’s an amazing experience to travel alone and having been initially cautious, I now encourage everyone to try it. I say it’s the most selfish thing you can do because your options are limitless and you have sole responsibility for the decisions you make. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? People ask me if it gets lonely, and it can be if you so choose, but the backpacking community is amazing and growing every year. There are always other solo travelers and hostel culture is open-armed around the world. Everyone should travel alone at least once.
You are currently motor biking through Vietnam (which is extremely cool and impressive!); how did you get the idea to see Vietnam in this way?
I first got the idea from a Dutch guy on a bus while traveling in Guatemala and immediately knew I wanted to do it. I’ve already made it from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi plus a few more weeks around the north, so it’s been more than successful so far. However, I think it’s important to note that motor biking in Vietnam, while slightly unconventional, is not by any means rare, and I encourage anyone planning a visit to buy a motorbike and escape to part of the country not on the typical tourist map. You’ll meet some like-minded people in the process and get to experience the warmth and sincerity of the many ethnic groups in Vietnam. You’ll also get to meet a lot of local mechanics.
Are there any drawbacks?
First up are the animals:
- Cows - I was riding on a highway, and while passing through a village a cow jumped out from the trees lining the road. There was a drainage ditch separating the road from the trees, so the cow was momentarily immobile as it regained its footing. In the meantime, I was busy crashing straight into it. I had all of my camera equipment with me, so my first thought was to check that, and was relieve to find my tripod had taken the brunt of the force. It was a wreck, but everything else was in working order. The bike didn't fair too well either and I spent the rest of the day watching the whole front end getting fixed. The cow walked away.
- Water buffalo – You’ll find these big slow moving obstacles being led down the middle of the road. They are also left to graze on the sides of roads, but usually stay clear of traffic.
- Chickens – They can’t decide where to go and end up running in front of the bike. They typically bounce off and hop away.
- Dogs – They decide where to sleep and you go around them.
Next, the roads:
When you put in a destination and let Google direct you, you will be led down any manner of highway, road, path, sidewalk, driveway, trail, and ancient riverbed. Take Google’s route with a grain of salt.
The weather: If I wasn't getting burned by the sun then I was getting rained on. I've had wet shoes for weeks. Dress accordingly.
Finally, the bike:
Travelers commonly buy the cheapest option for motorbikes in Vietnam: Honda’s Win, Wave, or Dream. They are old, Chinese knock-offs that frequently break down. I've replaced over half of the parts on the bike since I started and am hoping to finish without another considerable investment.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamorous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges have you had during your travels and how did you overcome them?
The daily challenges are a product of my budget. With such a strict budget, I dedicate a significant amount of time to finding the cheapest options. The cheapest option is never the easiest so I spend more time in transit, stay in farther and dingier accommodations, eat less, and generally make life more difficult for myself. The food is an especially sore spot, because I’m a glutton. In most countries, I take a special interest in local markets and cooking, so often times I don’t eat until I’ve found the market. This can make for some long hungry days. The worst is when the cost of the food is out of my budget, so I only can afford to eat one meal a day. I certainly make that meal count though.
What impact would you say the various cultures you have been exposed to have had on you?
It’s good to be able to step back from your own culture and examine it from a distance. Travel makes you appreciate certain aspects of home while enabling you to make changes to your life upon return. Most of the cultures I’ve been exposed to are in developing nations where family reigns supreme. I like the phrase "friends are the family you choose". So in my own way, I’m no different. I have some unpopular opinions on some of the more rigid cultures I have experienced, but I ascribe notion of moral universalism. Barring that, it is important to recognize your prejudices in order to be able to move past them and embrace people as they are. Travel has shown me variety around the world, but there is a familiarity even between cultures a world apart. Life looks different depending on where you are, but mostly people just want to be happy.
What advice would you give to those interested in traveling internationally but have no idea how to start?
Tell people what you want to do. Not only will you get advice, but the more times you say it the more real it will become. Sign up for stumble upon and select travel and photography as your interests. I can stumble for just a few minutes and I find myself recording different places in the world that I want to visit. It’s a quick and easy way to get inspired. Once you get going, walking is always your best option. It’s the right pace to appreciate everything around you, you learn the area, you meet people, you get exercise, and of course, it’s free. For distance, there are so many options from hitchhiking and ridesharing to cheap buses and trains. You may have to go at an inconvenient time, or share an overnight train with a salty old man, but that just makes for a good story.
What’s next for you?
Unfortunately I think there are going to be a lot of doctor’s appointments in my future. I hurt my knee and wrist this ski season, and need to address those issues before I take on the next leg of my travels – Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. However, look out for me next year leading photography workshops in the mountains of Nepal. I’d like to thank everyone I have met alone the way for sharing their stories with me and a special thank you to my friends and family at home for making it all possible.
Images Courtesy of Nate Polta