On The Road Again

Canada_35985

By this time tomorrow I’ll be in the air somewhere over South America. By nightfall I’ll be in the rarefied air of Quito, Ecuador, with a Panama hat cocked to one side, a cup of ceviche in my mitts, and a kick in my step. I’m looking forward to this one.

I’ll be in Ecuador for a couple of weeks with the good folks from Metropolitan Touring, then heading to Guatemala for a week with Diamond PR. I have some exciting stories in the works for some of my favorite clients, and can’t wait to get started.

I’ think I’ve packed a bag with clothes, but I’m not too worried about that. This is what I’ll be carrying with me virtually everywhere I go.

Clockwise from left:

- Walker Black Boots from Shoe the Bear

- Triopo TTL flash gun for Nikon

- Fossil watch

- Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens

- Saddleback briefcase in brown

- WD My Passport 1TB hard drive

- HoldFlast Ruckstrap in blue

- Passport

- Canon 22mm EOS-M lens

- Saddleback wallet in brown

- Flash Parker portfolios

- Canon EOS-M body

- Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 lens

- Moleskine notebooks

- Flash Parker business cards

* Nikon D800, pens, pencils, single change of underwear, and shower cap not pictured.

 

I don’t know how much blogging I’ll be doing on this trip, so follow along with me on twitter and Instagram @FlashParker – I should have a few things to say.

DOODAD: When in Roam

USA_0276

Some challenges are a bigger pain than others.

Those challenges can be exacerbated when you’re on the road.

One of the biggest challenges I face when traveling is finding a convenient way to get connected to the internet. There are days when I need to check my email a dozen times (when an editor is chasing me down for a photo of a rabid squirrel, or needs me to write a quick story about poutine and maple syrup), but I can’t spend my entire day at an internet café or locked down in my hotel room. I need quick, easy access to the web. When I’m at home, this is as simple as jumping onto my cell network and smartphoning my way to email bliss. But when I’m traveling, I prefer not to have to pay outrageous roaming fees to download a couple of bytes of data.

There are easy workarounds in some countries. In Thailand, for example, it’s as easy as picking up a pre-loaded SIM at the airport and popping it into your unlocked phone. But in other countries, where phone laws and regulations are tighter, it’s not that simple. Getting a SIM, or even a pre-paid phone, can be a huge problem, or next to impossible.

Enter DOODAD. I read about DOODAD on AFAR.com, and fired off an email to the customer service department about picking one up.

From the web:  “When you’re traveling, you don’t need another headache, you need a DOODAD. DOODAD is an international SIM card that gives simple, cheap data roaming in 69 countries (and growing) at great, flat rates. So you can look up maps, search for that cool bar, and keep your friends and family up to date with your adventures.”

That’s it. That’s all. That simple. I thought there might be some kind of catch, or outrageous roaming overage fees, or throttling feature that would turn my phone into a 1996 dial-up tuner. But there’s no catch, there are no extra fees, and there’s no throttle. The only thing you need to get started with a DOODAD is an unlocked SIM-enabled phone. There are dozens of websites out there that will send you an unlock code for small fee; I unlocked mine for $35.

I popped my DOODAD into my Samsung Galaxy SII, followed the instructions to activate the device, and was connected within seconds. I was in North-East Wyoming when I first tried the device, so I was connected to AT&T’s 3G network. From there I was able to access data via my phone like a normally would. There’s no phone number associated with this SIM, but that’s not something I’m worried about; when I’m overseas I can easily jump on google, Skype, or something similar to make a call.

The DOODAD comes with an adapter that allows it to fit any SIM slot; a clever bit of engineering that should allow anyone with a SIM-enabled phone access to the net.

I took the DOODAD on a cross-country trip from Sheridan to Toronto, and never experienced a single hiccup. Across Canada and the USA, I was charged at a rate of .30 cents a minutes; much better than what I’d have to fork over while roaming out of country on my usual network plan.

I picture DOODAD being a handy tool going forward. I’m off to Ecuador and then Guatemala on the 15th of October, and my itinerary is packed with activities. I won’t be seeing the inside of my hotel room until late in the evening each day, so having quick access to my email whenever I want it is going to be great. And, of course, I can mess about on Twitter and Instagram while I’m gone. Go team!

I’ll report back with a full international review when I return from South and Central America, but for now, I can’t say enough about this little gadget.

Get your DOODAD here.

- Flash

*I activated my DOODAD with $5 in credit and was topped up by the Customer Service department for the purposes of testing the device on the road. The opinions above are mine and mine alone; DOODAD was not consulted before I posted this review. I have no official partnership or affiliation with DOODAD.

USA Today: Dallas Mystery Trip

Back in the spring, USA Today sent me on assignment for their quarterly GoEscape travel magazine. What set this assignment apart from every other gig I’ve been on was the fact that I didn’t know where I was heading until I got to the airport at 6am.

An hour before taking to the sky, my editor sent me an email. I was off to Dallas, Texas. It was my job to get under the skin of the Big D.

I’ve included a PDF version of the article as it appeared in the magazine, and my original text for easy reading. You’ll notice that no one ever keeps my original title. Ha!

 

USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-1USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-2

USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-3USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-4USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-5USA-Today-Go-Escape-Parker-Texas-6

Hunting Velcro Pygmies

By Flash Parker | April 1, 2013

For USA Today: GoEscape Magazine

“New Orleans is a very interesting place,” said Ravi the taximan as we tucked into the departures corral at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. “The accent is a little funny, and the food is sometimes spicy, but the culture is unique. I hope they send you there for the Mardi Gras, and the Bubba Gump Shrimp.” I told Ravi I would send him a postcard and some Gump gear if I ended up in Louisiana. Ravi had a unique way of reconciling place and space, much like everyone who knew about my impending mystery trip. My mother argued that a weekend at Disneyland was like visiting all 50 states at once; my fiancée thought it would be nice if I was sent to Hawaii (as long as she could chaperone); and my best friend hoped to meet me in Vegas, though he admitted that we could never tell anyone.

I checked my watch; there were a few minutes until 5am and the revelation of my destination, so I scanned the airport’s big board for clues. I watched a foursome wheel their golf clubs through the entrance en route to Phoenix. A happy family tried to make space in their luggage for hockey skates ahead of their trip to Halifax, while a hunting party headed for Anchorage packed their orange vests and camouflage hats into their carry-on luggage.

Unlike these folks, I didn’t know where I was going to be spending the next three days. That meant I had no idea what to pack, though I tried my best. I took a quick inventory of my gear and chuckled to myself: camera; moleskine notebook; HoldFast camera strap (the fact that the strap looks like a holster is always good for street cred); passport; flashlight (it can be dark on the way to the bathroom); a hockey puck, otherwise known as a Canadian peace offering; and a pair of extremely snug lightning bolt undies, just in case I ended up someplace hot. These next three days were going to be great if I was sent to a place where preconceptions could guide me, but what if I landed somewhere my imagination couldn’t help? I would have to rely on the twitterverse if I was going to get at the cultural core of wherever I ended up, and reach out to local folks the moment my destination was revealed. I planned on tweeting local chefs, mixologists and bartenders in my quest for good eats and quirky bevvies. If I got a hot tip about a local secret, I was going to enlist the help of my follows to suss it out. If I bumped into someone on the bus who was willing to point me in the direction of a good time, I was going to drag them along for the ride. Over the next three days I would be the ultimate Yes Man, ready and willing to experience all that this fresh new place had to offer. I steeled myself against the challenge as a buzzer went off in my pocket. An email from Jim Lenahan, my editor and the mastermind behind this adventure, told me that I was headed to Dallas, Texas.

Before my plane took to the air I took to twitter. I was after the essential experience; I wanted to know where I could find an iconic view of the city, a market awash in local color, and a watering hole where tall tales flowed from native storytellers like beer from broken taps. By the time I arrived in Dallas my twitter feed had blown up with recommendations both mundane and remarkable. It seemed like everyone who had ever lived in, heard of, of passed through Dallas had an idea for me. One furtive follower suggested I spend some time with the Velcro Pygmies, known to frequent Dallas in the springtime. My request for more information about these mysterious pygmies went unanswered. I had tips, tricks, lists and an itinerary, but the experience was going to be realized in the way I interpreted this information.

ON THE LACK OF TUMBLEWEEDS.

Much to my chagrin my first few moments in Dallas were not spent dodging cattle on dusty streets populated by tumbleweeds and maverick cowboys itching for a hitching post. Dallas was not the reel of scenes lifted from Lonesome Dove I expected it to be. Instead, the city was sleek, slick, and stylish. My on-the-fly sleuthing had failed to uncover a ramshackle saloon, but I knew I could find one if I looked hard enough. I was intent on kicking in a set of double doors with my brand-new cowboy boots and announcing myself as the new sheriff in town. I hailed a taxicab and asked the driver what he knew about the Wild West and the Velcro Pygmies; he raised an eyebrow as he looked at my reflection in the rearview mirror. “I think you should speak with the Old Monk,” he said. I asked the driver to deliver me to this Old Monk; we had much to discuss.

I settled into prime real estate at the Old Monk’s bar. It was 4:30 and the joint was already filled with the city’s well-dressed, well-manicured, and well-mannered. I tossed my camera on the bar and hollered for something local. Riley the barman slid a frosty Deep Ellum IPA down the bar and into my hand. He nodded, I nodded. He didn’t call me pardner or ask if I was from around these parts, but I didn’t hold that against him. As I took to imbibing Riley scribbled notes on a pad of paper. He suggested I try the Capitol Pub, The Double Wide, and The Gin Mill. I asked for directions, so he drew me a map. I had trouble reading the map, so he offered to show me around. Riley even offered to help me locate the Pygmies, though he had never heard of them previously. We were finally getting somewhere.

Before we could set out for the Capitol, a patron at the other end of the bar asked if she could offer her two cents. She bore a striking resemblance to Kate Capshaw, and her husband claimed he looked like Garth Brooks. Who was I to say no? By the time I stepped back into the sun my itinerary had quadrupled in size, and I’d had more drinks poured for me than any visiting foreigner since Dirk Nowitzki brought the NBA title home to the Mavericks. The next few hours saw me pulling pints of craft ale from the taps at the Capitol, waxing poetic with literary rebels at Heroes Lounge, and working through the Tex-Mex masterpieces at the Blue Goose Cantina. The goose eggs made me happy, but I’d be lying if I said I stopped there. An evening stroll south along Greenville Ave led me through a quaint residential neighborhood and into Good Records, a vinyl playground where I was sure to discover the Velcro Pygmies. Alas, the sonically informed employees had never heard of them, but offered to turn me on to Smile Smile, Calhoun, and The Rocket Summer. I popped on a set of headphones, settled into a bean bag, lost myself in the music, wondering where I was going to end up next.

Next was clear across town, all the way to the Belmont Hotel on the outskirts of Oak Cliff. One tweeter mentioned the panoramic views of the downtown skyline, while another extolled the virtues of SMOKE, the modern smokehouse next door. Everyone else told me to be careful in this part of town. I took a martini to the patio and asked after Oak Cliff’s tough reputation, when it seemed more hipster than hard-ass on the surface. “We like it that way,” a fellow patio lantern told me. “If it didn’t have a bad reputation, there’d be no space out here to watch the sun go down.” Trusting that logic, I put myself at the mercy of the smoke pit in chef Tim Byres’ kitchen. Even if Oak Cliff’s streets were piled high with burning coals, I would walk across them for a taste of whole hog and blue cheese slaw. Dessert unnecessary.

SOME KIND OF WELCOME.

Rain and Texas go together like barbecue and peanut butter, which is to say not at all. Yet Dallas is a remarkably green place, and the sprawling Farmer’s Market, just south of the Main Street District, is a showcase for what a little bit of wet weather can do. My original plan was to collect fresh ingredients and prepare a feast, but I doubted my twitter followers would be able to help me craft a dish out of Mole, prickly pears, and hominy kernels. My culinary repertoire is rather limited, and I have no idea how to use a molcajete. Instead I learned a little bit about Texas honey, nothing about Texas tea, and met a man who mates melons for a living. I tucked into a long line at the Pecan Lodge, a market institution famous for southern barbecue. I waited an hour before ordering the Hot Mess; shredded brisket and sweet potato, with a side of M-m-mac n’ cheese. I joined a fitness class in progress down at the other end of the shed, just so I didn’t feel guilty about my mass consumption. I did have trouble focusing on the instructor, considering the class took place between the spicy pickle cart and the barrel-aged olive oil stand, while the sweaty couple in front of me discussed the ingredients destined to end up in their pork rind casserole. I was starting to fall in love with Dallas.

A gust of wind blew me clear past the upmarket boutiques, malls, and bistros of downtown and into the historic West End, where I found tourists posing for macabre photos on the x that marks the place where JFK was shot. Kids played on the grassy knoll while conspiracy theorists shared secrets outside the County Administration Building. I toured the Sixth Floor Museum and witnessed the place where Lee Harvey Oswald changed American history forever (a man outside hawking conspiracy propaganda tried to convince me otherwise). I wondered aloud why the Dallas Arts District does not receive more national attention, and was told by a trio of acutely attuned Nasher Sculpture Center valets that southerners know how to keep secrets better than the rest of the country. Feeling culturally gratified, I decided to take a break from history and play on the freeway.

Klyde Warren Park is a multi-purpose space built over one of the city’s busiest roads, buffered on one side by an armada of food trucks, and an open air library on the other. During one brief stretch I played a game of Frisbee golf, chased a gourmet slider with excessively colorful cupcakes, lost a game of chess to an 11-year-old prodigy (and a game of checkers to his 9-year-old sister), and was drafted into a soccer match. As I lay on the grass entirely overstimulated, I watched heavy gray clouds roll overhead. I switched off my phone, hushing the incessant twitter chirps, and decided that if my trip ended now I would go home happy. Not that I was going to let that happen. I’m a glutton for a good time.

PACHYDERMS AND COWBOY HATS.

By the time I arrived at the Deep Ellum Brewery it was 2pm and happy hour was nearly over. I self-guided through the beer list and asked the barman if the honey in the Oak Aged Doppelbock came from the Farmer’s Market. He didn’t know, but he pretended to care.

Zack Fickey, resident Event Planning Ninja, climbed the elevated platform and stood among the towering brew tanks as the fauxhemians and skinny-jeaned ne’er-do-wells gathered. Zack lauded Deep Ellum’s uniqueness, praised its history, and called for everyone who loved the browbeaten neighborhood to support local artists, and to drink good beer. I raised a glass with the rest of the crowd, and decided to vote for Zack if he ever ran for president (and if I were given a vote). My tour ended when I bumped into Oscar, a Fort Worth native showing some out-of-towners a good time in Dallas’ most important cultural enclave. Oscar introduced me to his friends, and they invited me to Fort Worth. I hesitated. I felt like there was so much more to see and do in Dallas. “We’re going to hunt down the Velcro Pygmies tonight,” Oscar said. “Have you ever heard of them?”

Oscar told me that Pygmies are nocturnal. We had time to kill before we went hunting, so we pulled on our boots and went mudslinging in the Fort Worth stockyards. We helped a cowboy haul his saddle to the rodeo grounds, had our boots shined outside the Pink Cadillac, got lost in a children’s maze made of old fences, and bought tickets to a Randy Travis concert going down at Billy Bob’s, home to slot machines, bad attitudes, and the world’s largest belt buckle. We ordered pints of blood and honey at chef Tim Love’s White Elephant Saloon (I did not kick in the doors), and speculated on why a grown man would fill his bar with hundreds of porcelain pachyderms. A local musician named Ryan Riley sang a tune while Oscar and I ordered boom boom mushroom burgers from the Love Shack next door. Oscar and I talked at length of the differences between Dallas and Fort Worth. In Fort Worth, people still wear jeans and cowboy boots, men order whiskey on the rocks, and steak is not a dirty word. If Texas had been defined along musical lines, Dallas would be a saxophone, and Fort Worth would be a banjo. “I would have also accepted cowbell,” Oscar said. We were getting along great. Twitter sent us for margaritas at Chimy’s (mine had a can of Red Bull sticking out of it), steak at Cattleman’s, barbecue at Railhead, and happy hour in the West 7th Cultural District, where we raised local Rahr Beers at the Durty Crow. We didn’t find a chuckwagon or have time for a campfire cookout, but given another couple of days I’m sure we could have.

It was late when our party arrived at Sherlock’s Pub & Grill in Arlington. I was growing ever anxious; we had talked little of the Pygmies, and I was beginning to doubt their existence. Oscar told me to close my eyes and allow my ears to guide me. The cacophonic sounds of 80s glam rock drew us to the stage, and I struggled to make sense of the kaleidoscopic light show, the smoke, and the endless tendrils of big curly hair that whipped from one side to the other. Velcro Pygmies frontman Cameron Flener teased the crowd into a frenzy and screamed Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics into the grenade-shaped microphone while the dance floor writhed below him. We had finally found the Pygmies. There was nothing left to do but dance.

I didn’t get a chance to ask the Pygmies if they like donuts. If I did, I would have invited them to breakfast at Hypnotic in Lakewood, a hip East Dallas food factory famous for their chicken biscuits and liberal use of bacon. For breakfast I had Kaye’s biscuit, with pepper jack, whipped cream cheese and fresh jalapenos, and the Evil Elvis and Canadian Health Care donuts. If James and Amy St. Peter ever decide to franchise, I hope they stay away from Toronto. I’d buy stock in donut holes and park myself in front of their kitchen. The pair sent me off with a snack for later, which I promptly ate while wandering around White Rock Lake. The surrounding park, adjacent to the Dallas Botanical Gardens, is a quiet oasis divided from the skyscraper infinity of downtown. I cast a few lines over the water with a fisherman named Miguel, and wondered if there was anything else I could possibly catch. My new friends and my amateur online tour guides had helped me see and experience more of Dallas in a 48-hour span than I ever thought possible. The pages of my notebook were stained by salsa, coffee, donut frosting, steak sauce, and spilled margaritas, personal Rorschach inkblots that represented individual memories from a whirlwind weekend. I flipped to a new page, filled my pen with fresh ink, and scribbled where next? along the first line.

MAKE TIME FOR:

US Post Office

251 W Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth

Built in 1993, this historic relic is a mash-up of Beaux Arts and Art Deco design from architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, and an enduring symbol of Cowtown’s bygone boom years.

John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza

646 Main St., Dallas (214)747-6660

Simple and striking, the JFK Memorial was designed by architect Phillip Johnson as a cenotaph, or open tomb, signifying the late president’s freedom of spirit.

Fort Worth Stockyards

130 East Exchange Ave., Fort Worth (817) 625-9715

fortworthstockyards.org

Rodeos, cowboy boots, swing-door saloons, crawfish boils, and Old West charm: the stockyards will get you close to the Texas of your imagination.

Dallas Running Tours

(214)642-3600 dallasrunningtours.com

Explore the city on foot, and sweat off your barbecue embellishments. A six-mile run showcases many of Dallas’ best sights.

Bishop Arts District

West 7th St., bishopartsdistrict.weebly.com

This trendy neighborhood in North Oak Cliff is home to indie bars, restaurants, theatres, and galleries. Annual events like UrbanStreetBazaar, Brew Riot, and 1st Thursdays lend a community vibe.

Flash Light Photography Expeditions: Flash in the Wild

www.flashlightexpeditions.com

We’re unwrapping something special today.

USA_30290

We’re thrilled to announce the official release of our first photography handbook today. Flash in the Wild: A Pocket Guide to the Right Light is 66 pages of fresh content shot on assignment around the world.

Welcome to the wild.

This pocket field guide from Flash Light Photography Expeditions will help you get the most out of your small off-camera flash while shooting on location. Whether you’re a burgeoning amateur, semi-pro or professional photographer, you’ll benefit from the more than 20 step-by-step breakdowns in our new guide.

This guide is for anyone who ever wanted to create a big scene with small lights, but didn’t know where to begin. From city streets to the darkest wood, we work through one exciting location after the other while bending light on a whim. We’ll show you what you need to pack into your kit, how to build a lightweight, everyday shooting system, and most importantly, how to react to, read, and control your light.

Order a copy at the introductory price of $14 and receive a free digital version.

Digital and iPad editions are $5.50.

Travel well. Travel often. Shoot better.

Brought to you by Dylan Goldby and Flash Parker.

 

USA_30324

USA_30336USA_30348

USA_30332

Zinio Magazine Giveaway

I used to swear that I’d never read a digital magazine. I’ve always loved the tactile feel of a book or a mag, but after receiving a tablet for Christmas (thanks, ma!) I’ve given the digital hordes another chance.

One of the major benefits of digital mags is price; a digital subscription is often little more than the price of a couple of issues of your favorite magazine. To that end, I was asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a new program from Zinio, the world’s largest online newsstand.

The Z-Pass program gets you 3 magazines for $5/month – not a bad deal at all. You can even try the program for 1 month for free.

Zinio has given me 10 free subscriptions to give away – or 9, after I keep one for myself – so drop me a line if you’re interested. AFAR, Conde Nast, Esquire, Men’s Health, American Photo and Reader’s Digest are but a few of the titles you can choose from.

Read on!

-flash

USA Today Travel: Mystery Trip 2013

Canada_21963

On Friday morning I’m heading out on the road for USA Today Travel’s Go Escape magazine – but I won’t know where I’m going until I get to the airport. Awesome concept, and it should be a ton of fun – though I don’t know how much fun Alaska would be if I’m stuck wearing a pair of briefs for two days. They’re more of a beach accessory.

I’ll be tweeting live once I know where I’m headed with the hope that local folk in the know will point me in the direction of some good times, so follow me on twitter @FlashParker and stay connected with me on Facebook as I upload photos of my trip.

Here’s a brief rundown of what I plan on taking with me – my USA Today survival kit.

The bare essentials for my mystery adventure.

Clockwise from left:
1. Underwater camera (I hope they send me to Hawaii!)
2. Checkered shirt so I look good in whatever brewery I explore.
3. Bear Grylls shirt, so I look good in the wild.
4. Passport, so I can get into North Korea, should that be where I end up.
5. Canadian flag – can’t leave home without it (also have the tattoo) and evil spirit amulet.
6. Canadian coins, to impress my American cousins (toonie!)
7. Random currency – you never know.
8. HoldFast Gear Money Maker camera strap – the best piece of photo gear I’ve ever owned.
8. Inova flashlight – to watch my step on the way to the restroom
9. Utility knife – to battle ghosts on my way to the restroom
10. Moleskine notebook – I do have to write a story about this
11. Hockey puck – aka Canadian currency
12. Fresh Flash undies! 1 pair, four wears
13. Voice recorder – for evidence
14. Olympus OM-2n – probably not coming with me, just filling space for the D800.

Track me down on twitter at FlashParker, and follow my adventure on Facebook here!

Asian Geographic: Eyes on the Prize

Eyes on the Prize

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 2, 2013: Death & Decay. I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.  Once again, some great images from contributing photographer Majid Saeedi.

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 2, 2013

EYES ON THE PRIZE

For Asian Geographic Magazine

By Flash Parker

It’s one thing for a student to claim that a dog ate her homework, but another thing entirely to say that she couldn’t see the homework in the first place. Recent studies have revealed that between 80-90% of students graduating from schools in East Asia – from countries including China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – suffer from short-sightedness, a condition otherwise known as myopia. A person with myopia is unable to focus on objects that are more than 2m away from them at any given point, a result of the eyeball elongating in an irregular manner. Most humans are born long-sighted and over time our eyeballs lengthen in order to allow us to focus better on objects both near and far; if this growth pattern is disrupted or affected by external forces, we may end up short-sighted. We’ve all had parents and teachers warn us not to spend all day in front of the television or sat with our noses buried in a book because it can impair our vision, but a lack of scientific research to back up these claims relegated them to superstition status. Besides, the commonly-held belief was that bad eyesight was correlated to bad genetics, and not our study or social habits. However, new research suggests that myopia, which can eventually lead to impaired vision and even blindness, may have roots in a number of environmental factors, and not be based solely on genetic predispositions. In fact, myopia may be directly linked to how much natural sunlight students are exposed to on a regular basis.

Independent studies conducted by researchers from the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Vision Science have associated an increased number of hours spent at school and studying at home and a lack of exposure to sunshine to increases in incidents of students with myopia. One study conducted on students from Singapore’s three predominant ethnic groups – Indian, Malay, and Chinese – concluded that environmental and outside influences, specifically time spent at school and time spent studying versus time spent outdoors under natural sunlight – have increased the number of reported cases of myopia by more than sixty-percent since the early 1990s. Of the students reported in this group, as many as twenty-percent have symptoms of high myopia, a condition that hinders vision of objects near and far, and can quickly lead to blindness if left untreated.

Myopia is not an unknown condition among East Asians; scientists have studied the ailment for decades, but have been unable to agree on whether myopia should be attributed to genetic factors or the severe educational demands placed upon students in major urban centers. As countries like China, South Korea and Singapore introduced aggressive new curriculums in the 1990s, myopia rates increased exponentially. Common risk factors for developing myopia, including the amount of time students spend reading books and pouring over homework at close levels, received a great deal of attention. However, Professor Ian Morgan of the Australian Research Council Centre wondered whether the amount of time students were spending indoors was impacting their eyesight. For example, high school students in South Korea regularly attend core curriculum classes from 8am until 3pm, and then attend afterschool study programs from 4pm until 10pm. As new educational initiatives increase the amount of time students spend buried in their books, the amount of time they may be exposed to natural sunlight decreases substantially. A secondary contributing factor is the increased availability and use of wireless telephones, personal computers, and tablets in Asia – rural and urban – over the last decade. People are simply finding more reasons to avoid going outdoors, thus robbing themselves of an opportunity to prevent myopia. Natural sunlight triggers the release of retinal dopamine, a chemical that inhibits the growth and reshaping of the eye. Sunlight is often more than ten times brighter than artificial light, and is the only practical stimulant of dopamine available to us. Without enough dopamine released into our system, our eyes can grow out of shape.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary some groups remain convinced that myopia is rooted in genetics and not associated with environmental factors. Troublingly, some students and their parents have resorted to self-medicating in order to prevent the symptoms of myopia; refractive surgery has become popular in affluent East Asian nations, while the drug atropine is more commonly used in East Asia than anyplace else on earth. Some schools in rural China are now experimenting with various ophthalmic devices, including contact lenses, reading glasses and spectacles, with an eye towards slowing the progression of myopia or reversing its effects by artificial means. Scientists argue that if myopia can be prevented by increasing the amount of time students spend outside there is no need to conduct trials with ophthalmic devices; furthermore, early data suggests that when used for lengthy periods the beneficial effects of these ophthalmic devices is drastically reduced. Magnifying reading glasses, for example, force students to focus deeper than they would without the use of glasses, and once their eyes become accustomed to the effects of magnification, the strain on their eyes is significantly increased, and the risk for peripheral hyperopic errors (considered one of the main triggers of myopia) increases substantially. Researches have cautioned school administrators to refrain from experimenting and exposing students to these devices until enough scientific data has been collected, while administrators have argued that exposing students to more sunlight on a daily basis is simply not an option; current academic curriculums require a specific amount of study and homework time, which leaves little hope that students will be afforded opportunities to spend more time outdoors.

Myopia frequency among children of European decent living in Western nations has always been much lower than rates found in Asia – occurring in as few as ten-percent of students in Australia and Canada. Ethnic variances were frequently used in the past to explain away the differences, while Western study habits and time spent in the classroom were thought to be contributing factors (being much less rigorous in comparison). Yet students from Australia, Canada, the United States and other Western nations generally spend a great deal more time outdoors – recess and lunch breaks are longer (recess is non-existent in some East Asian curriculums), and children frequently walk to and from school. Furthermore, few Western students enroll at after school study programs, and thus have more opportunities to get outside. Professor Morgan’s research revealed that students in Singapore spent as little as 30 minutes a day outdoors, while Australian students were exposed to sunlight for an average of three hours per day. Morgan contends that if students from the West spent as much time studying and as little time outdoors as their East Asian counterparts, they too would be at serious risk for developing myopia, again debunking the myth of the gene as it related to short-sightedness.

Studies similar to the one conducted by Professor Morgan have concluded that students won’t necessarily become myopic if they spend a lot of time studying, and that ophthalmic device trials should be viewed as a last resort from the perspective of academic institutions or government bodies. A study by the University of Cambridge concluded that an extra hour per week spent under the sun reduced the risk for myopia by two-percent; if students spent two hours per day outside each day, they would reduce their risk potential by a whopping thirty-percent. By spending that much extra time outside, students would quell the overuse of their near vision, increase the use of their distance vision, expose themselves to much-needed ultra-violet light, and increase their blood circulation.

Millions of current and former students are now staring in the face of a lifetime of vision problems. The World Health Organization warns that a majority of people living in Asia will suffer from some form of myopia by the time they reach 50 years of age; twenty-percent of these people will be highly myopic by the age of 70. This is more than a case of old people needing reading glass – this is a serious public health issue that will eventually threaten the eye health of most people on earth. There is no cure for myopia, so it is extremely important to be aware of the signs and remain equipped to combat early-onset symptoms.

To keep your peepers peeping, look out for these signs, and consult your family doctor or an eye specialist if any symptoms persist:

- Headaches while reading/studying

- Squinting while watching television from a distance

- Frequently irritated eyes

- Excessive blinking

- flash

 

PS: I’m much better at updating my Facebook page, so if you’re so inclined, head over there for the last goings on from the empire. Click to join me on Facebook.