By Antonio Valdez

During my second semester at Paul Smith’s College, I overheard Professor Ken Cohen say there was a sustainable nature-based tourism class being offered on campus, concluding with a trip to Uganda. I was instantly set on the idea, and promptly began sourcing the funds to make this dream a reality. The trip was not the only reason I decided to take this course though. The two main reasons were:

First, it had to do with tourism, and how to mitigate your carbon footprint as a business/consumer in the recreation industry. A very intriguing, booming trend, in itself.

The second reason, I love to travel, and the idea of soaking up the knowledge and culture that a third world country would offer was extremely enticing.

After returning, friends would ask me, “How was Uganda?” The fact that I was unable to accurately portray the experience in a couple of sentences was frustrating. To put it simply, it was the best experience, regarding any journey, I have ever participated in.

Urbanized sections of Uganda have a very distinct aroma. It is a combination of trash being burned in the streets, food being prepared over fires, and the sweet aroma of the green, tropical landscape. Almost all the roads are red, dirt paths etched into the land and were often bumpy.

The people of Uganda would glow with excitement when they saw our group passing through their areas of residence, partly because they knew our occupation was philanthropic in its nature, but also out of genuine curiosity. Our group was frequently referred to as “Mzungus” meaning “foreigner.” Luckily our “Mzungu mobile” (touristy van) had wide windows, which could be opened all the way with ease, making the seats in the van prime for a photographer.

No frame was out of reach.

Uganda, otherwise known as “the pearl of Africa,” possess all of the animals you see in National Geographic documentaries, and seeing it for yourself is surreal. I couldn’t believe I was really there.

Taking such a course has opened my eyes in ways that would have previously been impossible. As a Recreation student and adventurer, I strongly value optimism, patience, and getting out of my comfort zone. Uganda was the perfect fit to hone such traits. I am actively pursuing a career as a travel photographer, and having these genuine experiences has added to not only my adversity portfolio, but has also empowered me with the ability to share such emotions in my photographs.

This journey has prepared me for the potentially adverse conditions I may face in my career’s future, and also provided once in a lifetime experiences I would have never imagined possible. For that, I am extremely grateful and proud that my college offers such opportunities.