December 17, 2013

National Geographic award: the biggest award in my career so far and the STORY behind it

I’m certain that every single living person at some point experiences those very significant, unrepeatable and unusual moments which pass by so fast and once when they do, they think: “Oh, if only I could turn back the time and enjoy it more/change something/do something about it…”. Sounds familiar, right? And what if sometimes, just sometimes (and that’s EXTREMELY rare) you actually do get the chance to go back in some way and do something about it?
One of those moments happened to me while traveling through magnificent New Zealand in January 2013. After it all passed, I was certain that I’d never be able to “go back” and do something about it. But completely unexpectedly I got my extremely rare chance…

I carry amazing memories from my trips all over the world… Some of them seem so unreal when I retell the tales of our adventures or look at some of our photographs, so every once in a while I have to remind myself that it truly was us who went to all those places, it was us who had experienced all of it, met all those people, got to know all the customs, regions, took part in all of the events and that all the little and big joys have irreversibly reshaped us.
And then, after all the excitement, discoveries and travels, something happened and simply and effortlessly trumped all of our experiences.

As I mentioned, the story begins at the very start of 2013 in the land “at the world’s end” and there are no words to describe it. Visiting this land for the first time was like being in a fairytale… Magnificent New Zealand! At the world’s end, at the end of a two-month trip, in the amazing Queenstown. We were traveling around with Stray Bus New Zealand and it was the evening before our trip back home, Nikola and I were taking a walk, absorbing the streets. Every imaginable thing could be found there, but Nikola’s attention was drawn by a busking pianist on the Marine Parade. Music was so amazing and we lingered for a few minutes just listening to the man play and observing the quiet and melancholy scene even though the time was way past for packing luggage. Nikola made couple of photos as well…

Few minutes later we left the scene not knowing who the man and the girl were, and just remembering that beautiful and absolutly brilliant music… Yes, that was *the moment*, the one that passed and the one we continued to think about long after it passed.

After a few long flights, we came back home to the chaos of new weddings and we had no time to go through our memories, no matter how fond we were of them. Sometimes we would steal a glance at a part or two of our trip, when suddenly Nikola found the photo that captured him immediately. I remember looking at it with him and going back straight to that moment in my mind when I told him that the only thing missing in this photo was the sound we heard then. It was the only thing missing! Everything else was in that picture. Nikola comforted me by saying that maybe one day we’ll get the chance to go back there and, who knows, maybe that pianist will still be there.

Not long after that, Nikola received an e-mail informing him of a competition. As a long time reader of National Geographic, he had all of the subscriptions and received all the newsletters, so we couldn’t possibly miss that a submission for National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest was on. It’s probably the most prestigious and most famous competition for travel photography in existence. Looking at weekly editor’s choices and the fascinating photos, we were faced with a fact that there was absolutely no chance he’d get the award… But it didn’t matter.

– Send some photos, what do you have to lose… you keep talking about the pictures in their magazines, and drooling over them. At least you’ll know you’ve participated…” – I was quite persistent.

When he finally agreed to participate just for fun, he chose a few of the pictures he really liked. He decided to submit four of them, one of which was the one of the pianist and a little girl.

Did I mention that we were in the middle of the wedding season? Yes, we were, and, of course, we forgot all about the submission and competition.

And then we received an e-mail. At 2 a.m. I was accidentally awake and completely unprepared for the email subject saying “You are the winner!”. A rushing opening of the e-mail, skimming through it and then I froze. The picture that Nikola liked so much and the picture of that special moment won one of the ten awards and he was the one chosen among more than 15 500 submissions.
Fifteen days later, Nikola received the email from Mr. Dan Westergren, the Director of Photography of National Geographic Traveler, so the competition results were officially published and then the mayhem ensued. Countless articles from all of the relevant world media to travel blogs, messages from all over the world, buyer’s offers, all the insanity initiated from that announcement.

And what if I tell you that the fact that Nikola received such an award, the whole mayhem, ecstasy and happiness, were nothing compared to what happened next.

As it turned out later, Nikola’s awarded picture was big news in New Zealand. And we heard this from a man who contacted us a few days later.

It was our pianist… 🙂

If there was a way to describe simply yet effectively what we felt when we received his message, I’d burst with happiness. He was so very happy with the picture and the award, and with his note, we received – the sound.

Mathias Piano Man (his artistic name), a busker piano player, has his own web site and there can be found and bought all four of his albums. Indescribable ambiance music instantly took us back to New Zealand… We found out a lot about him too. Such a creative and inspirational man… The Belgian started travelling in 2008, went to Queenstown, fell in love and decided to stick around for a while. He found the piano from the picture at a recycling center, bought it for $ 75 and tried to play it. It was at that moment that he had started to play, and a year or so later, he already made his first album and made his stay a permanent one. He makes a living by selling his albums and playing every day at the same spot in Queenstown. He had put wheels on his piano so he rolls it around with him. 🙂

We ordered the music, and Nikola kept daily correspondence with Mathias. It was hard to say who was happier about the whole thing, us or him. And then the second e-mail came. This one was written by a mom on behalf of her little girl and in the attachment was the picture of her daughter.

That’s how we met Jemma, the little girl from Nikola’s picture!!! 🙂

(Photo by Jacqui Day, Jemma’s mom)

How did we feel?! It was a completely new, incredible and once in a lifetime experience. It was the best story we could ever experience with any trip, and the fact is we will probably never experience anything like this again. A single photo connected three people and their stories… We also found out that the two of them were never connected in any way (we previously thought they might have been a father and a daughter…), Jemma was a passerby, just as we were. As her mom told us later, it was the last day of her trip to Queenstown as well, and she really liked Mathias’ music so that last evening she forced her mom to take her there to listen to him play some more and to buy an album. They live in Nelson, a beautiful little town that’s also on the South Island of New Zealand. She’s a really special girl that already likes travelling so much and we’re certain that one day she’ll explore the world!

The next thing we did was in itself completely understandable – two framed pictures with Nikola’s dedications were sent to New Zealand, each with its own address, and now they have delighted owners: Jemma and Mathias!

It doesn’t end there (as if it ever could), we decided to do something that made us very happy. After talking to Mathias, we decided to buy the licence to use his music for our weddings!!! Starting with next season, the music we love so much (and I’m sure our clients will too) and that reminds us of New Zealand every time we hear it, will be a part of our slideshows of wedding pictures. We can’t wait to show you the first one… The deal’s been done, Mathias is compensated and with the money he receives from licensing he’ll finance the making of his fifth album!

But then we also succeded in something we couldn’t imagine that would be possible: Nikola and I are getting married this July in Croatia, and we were daydreaming about having Mathias playing on our wedding. It was mission impossible for us to bring him from New Zealand cause it’s such a long way and we wouldn’t have that much money. But he made us so incredibly happy with his news: he’s visiting his family in Belgium this summer and he’ll be in Europe in July with his little family from New Zealand. And he decided to visit us in Croatia for our wedding in July! So Mathias Piano Man, the man from Nikola’s photo will play his music at our wedding ceremony!!! It sounds impossible to believe. And the feelings we’re going through… there’s just no way to describe them. It feels like watching a movie, only it’s really happening, to us!
Now, if there was only a way to bring Jemma and her mom as well or to go back to New Zealand and meet them… it would be so great and crazy at the same time…

So now, even though the whole thing was launched by that award, the award itself seems so insignificant compared to what we received after, since that cannot be compared to any award anywhere… That moment we so wanted to go back to, is coming back to us in so many amazing sequences, with new twists and surprises. We won’t ever regret for just leaving it in the past, cause it will never be there. I’ll never be able to describe it the way it deserves to be described… We also got two amazing friends and we have connected with them and their families in a really special way. That’s the greatest thing ever about travelling and we’ll carry it within ourselves for the rest of our lives.


P.S. You can see our wedding slideshows with beautiful Mathias’s music here.