The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.


We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.


Culture Miscellaneous
Tangier, Morocco

Tangier: A Visual Feast to Start the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m kicking off 2018 with a post about a city I visited last spring. I hope you enjoy this portrait of Tangier, Morocco.

May, 2017

After two weeks in Portugal and Spain, the exotic allure of Morocco has my full attention. It’s been ten years since my last visit to the country but Morocco’s gypsy ambiance has never lost its grip on my heart.

We park the rental car at a long-term garage in Algeciras — nearly getting scammed in the process, but ultimately we outwit the jerk who is trying so desperately to usher us into a particular parking space. Basta! He runs off, pretending he’s calling the cops. The car is stored and we’re on our way to Tangier, the first stop on our week-long jaunt through northern Morocco.

As we ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar I wonder at the ocean water — apatite blue and as calm as Lake Tahoe. We begin to see the shore of Tangier stretching along our view to the east in a thin, bright line. The light seems magnified, one tiny step closer to the equator, with a palette devoid of the bright greens of the Algarve from where we’ve just come. It’s intriguing to imagine the Sahara desert not too far beyond us … an adventure for another time.

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

At the moment, Tangier is our adventure. The city climbs the hill in front of us like the San Francisco of Africa. Tangier is a melting pot and crossroads at the edge of the continent; a city of highs and lows as time and people have passed through it for centuries. At the moment, Tangier is revitalized and ready for the future with a huge new port, a beautiful beach promenade and all the culture a city needs to attract an international community.

Our riad is somewhere in the middle of this hillside collage. Within minutes of docking we’re in a taxi on our way around the medina.

We find our way to the kasbah and arrive at the side street where La Tangerina is high on the hill, tucked behind a grand wooden door. Typical of Moroccan architecture, La Tangerina is several stories tall with a central courtyard. Our room is a small, split-level unit overlooking the walkway out front.

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

We unpack a few things and retire to the rooftop deck where mint tea and cookies are waiting for us in a stylish assemblage which reminds me that even the smallest things in life can be done with great artistry. We feel sincerely welcomed. We toast to an exciting day, with a view of the Atlantic on one side and the medina on the other.

Our taxi driver returns at 5:00 p.m. for an hour-long walking tour of the medina. He’s a university student and earns extra money by giving tours, during which he can practice speaking English. For the next hour we wend our way through the maze of footpaths among the buildings, so tall on both sides it’s impossible to tell where we are. It feels a little like snorkeling — we come up for air and try to get our bearings each time a path emerges into an open space.

The medina is a study in textures and colors, and I find myself navigating by the most memorable of them. A yellow and blue wall with a row of plants on a doorstep is a favorite passageway.

The Hand of Fatima

The Hand of Fatima

The khamsa, or Hand of Fatima, hangs from more than a few doors as a protective symbol to ward off the evil eye. The khamsa is also a contemporary symbol of peace.

What I love most about Morocco is the endless embellishment of even the most mundane surfaces. Walking through the medina offers an endless display of intentional artistry. Doors and windows almost always have elegant, hand-hewn designs within the confines of plain rectangles. As I learned in Islamic geometric design class, the best designs (and most designs here, really) are made-to-measure. The starting point, ending point and placement have been carefully considered to avoid the odd cut, loose end or messy composition. Moroccan design is deliberate design at its very best.

The streets outside the medina are wider and easier to navigate, running down to the port and across to the Ville Nouvelle. But old city or new city, temptation exists at every doorway. The crafts, textiles and antiquities inside the shops speak a vibrant, expressive language and the much-loved neutrals of western palettes have little voice here.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We step into a shop with room after room of rugs, ceramics and home accessories. Overwhelmed with patterns and choices, the salesman leads us upstairs to share something he seems to know we’ll find of more interest.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We emerge on the roof to another perspective of the medina. The midday sun strips the shadows from the mass of shapes on the hill and the call to prayer begins. This moment feels more valuable than any rug or accessory we might have had our eye on so we take it in and thank him for showing us.

We explore the fish market as well as the fruit and vegetable market set up along a street in the medina. The bounty of Morocco creates a variety of traditional dishes, including a sardine stew simmering in open tagines at a street-side cafe.

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

At every destination, the reaction to being photographed is something a photographer must explore and be aware of. In Mumbai, people loved being photographed but here in Morocco the general feeling I’ve gotten so far is total aversion. This is confirmed when I talk with a Berber woman about the cheese she’s selling at the market. She’s happy to show and sell her product but dips her hat to hide her face when I ask if I can shoot a photo. No matter — every culture is different and deserving of respect. I find myself shooting almost entirely with my phone because it’s faster and less conspicuous. Even still, and for this reason, most of my photos do not include people.

The indoor market holds even more piles, bins and boxes of Moroccan staples like lemons, olives, dates and nuts. For being so close to the Sahara desert, Tangier’s markets look surprisingly plentiful.

We stop for an afternoon coffee at the Grand Café de Paris. We choose a table along the back wall and watch the the world go by through the high windows overlooking the street. The brown leather chairs and buttoned-up waiters give an atmosphere of old elegance. No one moves too quickly — this is a place to meet and relax but an air of sophistication holds court over every customer. It feels as if anyone in the world might walk through the door.

To end our day we take a walk through the historic El-Minzah Hotel which opened in 1930. The walls are covered with photos of famous people who have come to the hotel including Rita Hayworth and Yves Cousteau.

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

The inner courtyard gives another nod to old elegance. In a quiet corner almost out of view, a bold antique sofa sits against a blue tiled wall under a framework of iron scrolls over a window. It is yet another effortless composition of pattern on pattern, color on color, that creates the singular sense of place that Morocco so clearly communicates.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

As we end our time in Tangier I capture one more photo of my favorite discovery within the medina. Down a dusty road in an unremarkable spot, this profusion of Islamic geometric design sits in solitude with chips and cracks that show its age — wabi-sabi in Tangier. Perfect, symmetrical, made-to-measure and stunning. It is my favorite discovery of our whole trip.

It’s time to catch the train and move on from Tangier. We taxi to the station and make a run for it, reluctant to leave this charming, rustic city. It’s been so fun to explore … and only just a warm-up for the coming labyrinth that is Fez.

Culture Miscellaneous

Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

Architecture Culture

Azulejo and Zellige

Azulejo and zellige. I know, readers! These are tough words to get your mind and mouth around. But they’re relevant terms if you’re traveling through Portugal, Spain and Morocco which is what I did last April and May. Before I share a bunch of new posts with you about this region of the world, it’s important to understand the meaning and history behind these two related words. You’re going to see azulejos mostly in my photography of Portugal, zellige mostly in my photography of Spain and Morocco, and the influence and presence of both throughout my photography of the whole region. So let’s get it all started at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in Lisbon, Portugal.

Queen Leonor's Chapel, The National Tile Museum

Queen Leonor’s Chapel, The National Tile Museum

The building that is now the tile museum was originally the Convent of the Mother of God (Madre de Deus), founded in 1509 by Leonor, Queen Consort of Portugal. Through the centuries, tile was brought to the convent for decoration but little of it was applied to the interior. In the 1950s, the convent was annexed by the National Museum of Ancient Art to house its ceramic displays (along with tiles that were already stored at the convent) and eventually the annex became the National Tile Museum.

The museum tells the history of decorative tile that likely originated in North Africa in the 13th century and reached across the Gibraltar Strait into Spain and then Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially, decorative tiles may have been a reaction against horror vacui — fear of the empty, a Greek term that has been applied to numerous styles and periods of art.

Moorish influence on early azulejos

Moorish influence on early azulejos

The museum offers this definition of azulejo: From the Arab word azzelij or al zuleycha, which means ‘small polished stone’, refers to a ceramic piece, usually squared, with one side glazed. Zellige is a similar Arabic word, meaning “mosaic,” particularly with geometric tiles of the style seen throughout Morocco. Because zellige is a form of Islamic art, its designs are purely geometric with no portrayal of living things. In contrast, the azulejos found throughout Portugal are painted with patterns, design motifs and scenes of life.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

The process of Azulejo

The National Tile Museum holds a historic collection of azulejos, assembled in vignettes on the walls and also applied throughout the former convent’s church, chapel and cloisters. A display case at the entrance of the exhibition explains the process of making azulejo: A tile is cut from a slab of raw clay; one side is covered with a layer of powdered glass and tin-oxide; a line drawing is made on tracing paper; the paper is flipped over and pricked along the lines with a sharp instrument; the pricked tracing paper is placed over the tile and brushed with powdered charcoal to transfer the line drawing onto the tile in a process called pouncing; a rabbit’s tail erases any charcoal mistakes; the tile is painted with color and fired at a very high temperature to create the saturated, polychrome beauty of the finished piece.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Azulejos were sometimes assembled together to look like tapestries, known as tapete (carpets). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the azulejo color palette was limited to blue, yellow, brown, green and white. In the 17th century, the color trend turned toward a simplified blue and white palette in the style of Chinese porcelain which was popular around the world.

The museum is arranged chronologically which helps with understanding how tile design, color and illustration evolved over centuries. The AzLab, an organization of the museum, is working to identify, date and catalog the vast tile designs of homes, buildings and churches throughout the country. AzLab also has a great interactive timeline of important examples in the history of azulejos. Only some of Portugal’s tiled works of art have been signed by the artists, several of whom were master oil and ceiling painters: António de Oliveira Bernardes, Manuel dos Santos and António Pereira.

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Scene from the Hunting Room

Scene from the Hunting Room

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Crates of tiles are stacked along the interior hallways of the museum and restoration appears to be ongoing. What a huge job to reconstruct the tiled history of an entire nation, one small square at a time from the past 400+ years.

The Manueline Cloister is beautifully decorated in 19th century tiles with a diamond pattern which complements the arched ceiling.

The Church of Madre de Deus is a surprise within the tile museum, a remnant from the former days of the convent. Gilded at every glance, it’s a vibrant expression of a Baroque Portuguese interior. Upstairs the Chapel of St. Anthony is similarly covered in opulent paintings.

Ending the museum tour, the Great Panorama of Lisbon wraps half of the room in a blue and white pictorial of the city before the devastating earthquake of 1755. Each tile is delicately painted with detail showing homes, ships, life along the coast and scenes from the countryside.

Manueline Cloister and 19th century tiles

Manueline Cloister and 19th century azulejos

Traveling this region that straddles the Strait of Gibraltar is like taking a visual safari through the worlds of azulejos and zellige. Colorful and intricate, one cannot walk much more than a block or an alley’s length without stopping to admire the beauty of so many tiles and mosaics, as you’ll see in my upcoming posts.

If you’ve ever tiled a floor then you know the painstaking, backbreaking effort it takes to properly cut, mortar, assemble and grout a tiled surface — even with power tools, let alone manually as in past centuries. So it’s pretty easy to conclude that in the heyday of azulejos and zellige, beauty and craftsmanship must have been valued tremendously in spite of the time and pain involved in creating these works of art. No wonder the WINE of the region is so good and such an important part of Portugal’s culture! Saúde!

Culture Miscellaneous

Short Stories from Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I think travel is also fatal to judgement. For everything I saw and experienced in Mumbai, I have no judgement. I think the people of Mumbai are doing the very best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai scared me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.


Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) At first thought, touring a slum might seem sad and exploitive but seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Upon seeing Dharavi, I saw hope along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”


Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.


Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. Sweet! But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.


Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I also  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from, then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? Most of it is imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.


Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did everything in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the plastic twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem in Canada.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak.then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”



Culture Miscellaneous
Trinidad, Cuba

Postcards From Trinidad

Trinidad, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Hasta Siempre Comandante performed by Dúo Real, a guitar duo we listened to while dining on the outdoor deck at La Ceiba in Trinidad.

After Havana and Santiago de Cuba, we venture to Trinidad on another long ride through the countryside. Acres and acres of corn and sugarcane fields surround us on the road to the west coast. A few stops for lunch and coffee along the route allow us to see a way of life still rooted in the last century.

After experiencing the magnetism of Havana and the enthusiasm of Santiago de Cuba, venturing to Trinidad brings the chance to see another identity within this island full of personality. In the context of these three Cuban cities, we find Trinidad is the introvert — less inclined to chat us up with life and music on the street; more inclined to leave a lasting impression through quiet color and beauty.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad feels subdued, almost suburban, with mostly single-story shops and cobblestone streets that are easily explored on foot. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site with well-preserved architecture on a smaller, simpler scale than Havana. Trinidad is a big draw for tourism and it seems like we see more tourists here than we do anywhere else. This is good and bad — it may feel slightly more crowded than other towns, but Trinidad is accustomed to entertaining guests so there are lots of shops and restaurants to explore.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

The heart of Trinidad is the Plaza Mayor and the Church of the Holy Trinity. A wide stone staircase next to the church feels like Cuba’s version of the Spanish Steps — a social meeting point where you can grab some shade under a tree or a mojito from the bar on the corner.

The Church and Monastery of Saint Francis draw people up to the bell tower to have a look over Trinidad. As we discover on a morning walk, there are other, less crowded places to see the town from up above. We wander into a gallery where a volunteer guide shows us to the roof.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Exploring Trinidad is less about what there is to do and more about what there is to see. It is one of the most visually expressive towns I’ve ever been to … where the color of a classic car may match the color of the home where it’s parked. Every photo is a postcard and the color combinations of the buildings enlighten my opinion of what goes together and what doesn’t. Everything here just seems to work. It even seems like the people who live here have subconsciously adopted this unique color blocking in the way they dress. Their shirts and pants give an extra dab of tertiary color to the streetscape.

We explore the markets around town, with embroidered tablecloths, woodcarvings, fans, jewelry and ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. We make a trade at one of the stalls — two carved wooden hummingbirds in exchange for J’s sunglasses.

We’ve come to realize that hats, sunglasses and pens — especially pens — are sought after all over Cuba. Here in Trinidad, I pass a home on a morning walk and the two elderly residents look at me from their front door while emphatically gesturing as if they’re writing on paper. I reach in my bag and give them a pen. They are elated with this simple gift. On an afternoon walk on the outskirts of Trinidad, a man asks J if he can have his hat. Sure! We have more hats. You take this one. Thumbs up and big smiles all around.

Trinidad, Cuba

Morning music in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad has music, too. We are in Cuba, after all. The music here is a little more country, a little less rock and roll. The act of getting together to play and enjoy the time seems almost more important than the music itself.

Trinidad is a coastal city and in our research of it we find a few suggestions about visiting its outer-lying beaches. One beach is near town and the other — Playa Ancón — is a longer taxi ride away. We go to both. As with everything in Cuba, there isn’t much information about what we’ll find at these beaches. But as with everything in Cuba, the adventure is usually worth it. Here’s our discovery at Playa Ancón. I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s worth it. In the meantime … hasta luego, mis amigos! I’ll be in the water.


Next post: The View Over Guantánamo

Culture Miscellaneous Travel

Gathering of Nations 2016

Gathering of Nations

The Men’s Fancy Feather Dance, Gathering of Nations 2016

The opening moment actually takes my breath away. The first drumbeat initiates a men’s dance of such color and fervor I can think of nothing to compare it to. A blur of motion blows past me — men spinning, dipping, stepping eloquently to the magnificent beat of an eight-person drum circle. Each one of these dancers is a work of art in his regalia and style of movement, but collectively they pulse like a beating heart, for several minutes, until the explosive drumbeat ceases into silence, the dancers hold their final pose and the crowd erupts in applause.

This is my first powwow. In the first three minutes, I’m speechless and nearly moved to tears.

I find out later that powwows don’t usually begin with a men’s Fancy Feather dance, but this year’s Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico has begun with this special performance in honor of the late Spike Draper, Diné Nation Posthumous Head Man Dancer for the two-day event. What a beginning — what a moment I won’t ever forget.

The Gathering of Nations is North America’s largest powwow, with more than 3,000 dancers from over 700 tribes and First Nations. I’ve arrived here for the two-day event on a personal mission. After writing about culture and life around Southeast Asia for the past four years, it’s time to dive back into the heritage of my own country and learn — or perhaps I should say re-learn — about the culture of the indigenous people and first nations of North America. It’s clear from being here, and from being a lot older and a little bit wiser about the world, that all of the American history lessons I sat through in school were narrowly-focused and vastly incomplete.

Gathering of Nations 2016

Representing Zia, Ute and Diné nations of Albuquerque, New Mexico

What I experience during the Gathering of Nations is as educational as it is enchanting. Three thousand dancers share the floor during the magnificent Grand Entry — an hour-long procession of all ages and nations, repeated four times in two days. The Grand Entries are followed by hours upon hours of competitive and community dancing, drumming and singing into the night and throughout the following day and night again. Jingle, Fancy Shawl, Buckskin, Grass, Cloth, Straight, Traditional, Gourd, Hand Drum … all new to me, and profound in heritage and significance. And beautiful — so completely, exquisitely beautiful that my words are futile in describing the experience of being here.

Gathering of Nations Grand Entry

Saturday’s first Grand Entry, Gathering of Nations 2016

I watch, I listen, I learn. I ask questions. I un-learn. I re-learn. I adjust the words I use, I change the questions I ask. I try. I hope. I am so grateful to be here. I am just one person, but I am one person. One step. One step closer to the truth. Past, future, here, now.


Click any photo in the gallery below to view as a slideshow.

Special thanks to James Korenchen of James Korenchen Public Relations for providing me with an all-access media pass to photograph the Gathering of Nations 2016.

These photos, and many others not shown here, will be given to the Gathering of Nations organization. Please do not use these images without my consent. If you’re pictured here and would like a copy of your photo, please get in touch by leaving a comment below. I’d be more than happy to send you your portrait.


WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Face

Culture Miscellaneous

Regarding Everest

After seeing Mani Rimdu and an enjoying an overnight stay near Tengboche, we trekked farther up the Khumbu Valley toward Dingboche. The terrain relaxed into high altitude farmland, where rock walls delineated plots of land used to farm buckwheat, barley and potatoes. It seems unlikely that at 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) there would be much of anything worth farming but the bounty from these three crops sustains the families in the region as a source of both food and income. Black barley, in particular, is well suited for growing at Dingboche’s unique altitude and Sherpas regard barley from here as the finest available — even divine, as the local god of barley resides at a nearby peak called Cho Polu. (You can read more about Khumbu farming here.)

After a few hours hiking through the valley, we reached the far edge of Dingboche where Ashish arranged our accommodations for the evening. The cold shadows of the afternoon were setting in and we pitched our tent in the front yard of the home of a Sherpa woman. She was in her fifties, lived alone and had four grown children,one of whom paid her a visit the next morning. She welcomed us inside the stone and mud hut where we warmed up next to a stove while she and Ashish exchanged pleasantries. After a few minutes, and with a twinkle in her eye, she pulled out an enormous plastic jug from under her bed: Raksi — the local home brew and the byproduct of Dingboche’s grain farming. We toasted and tasted, and thanked her for her hospitality.

Departing Dingboche the next morning, the valley lifted higher and turned slightly west with the promise of the world’s highest peaks not too far away.We crossed the Khumbu Khola to a plateau filled with monuments to world-famous Sherpas and climbers, and strings of prayer flags tattering in the wind.

It is a strange, even lonely sensation trekking into the majesty of the remote Himalayas. It is nearly silent from land to sky, with only the wind and your footsteps accompanying you. Your relationship with nature and desire to see the world become the motivating forces pushing you deeper into the isolation. Otherwise, why would you be here? Purpose becomes singular, grandeur becomes visible, and the magnitude of what you’re about to see builds into a tidal wave of anticipation. Finally, the trail rounds a bend and drops into the last stretch to Gorak Shep. Pumori, the perfect peak of a child’s drawing, sits to the left and the serrated edge of Nuptse cuts into the sky on the right. You have arrived.

Pumori to the left, Nuptse to the right, J in the middle

Pumori to the left, Nuptse to the right, J in the middle

We pushed on, now above 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) but still in the valley. Over the next kilometers the well-worn trail dissolved into the sandy basin of the Khumbu glacier, the world’s highest. Its path marks the movement of water, ice and rock over thousands of years. Listen closely and you might even hear it moving. When I was here in 2000 I spent three mesmerizing hours sitting and listening to the brittle snaps and pops of the Khumbu glacier’s noisy neighbor — the Ngozumpa glacier over Cho La Pass near Gokyo — while every now and then seeing rocks fall and dust fly as the glacier moved down the valley, inch by inch.

We picked our way through the rough and rocky terrain and arrived at the overlook to Gorak Shep — the farthest campsite of our trek.

It was high noon. Sunshine blasted over the moonscape of Gorak Shep with a dry, intense heat reminiscent of Arizona. We pitched our tent and made our decisions about what to do with the afternoon. I rested for tomorrow’s final climb to Kala Patthar (Black Rock) — the dark, dusty peak below Pumori in the photo above. J and a couple of Sherpas pushed on to Everest Base Camp in a six-hour round-trip hike, returning after dark exhilarated and exhausted.

With the sun down, temps dropped quickly. We settled into our sleeping bags around 8:00 p.m. and found our night in the Khumbu both eery and magnificent. With clear skies and no wind, complete silence surrounded us. But less than an hour into our sleep we heard the rumble of an avalanche on the other side of the glacier. Near midnight, I laid in my sleeping bag fearing the frigid cold and heart-pumping conditions of a trip to the toilet tent at the breathtaking altitude of 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). But as I emerged from the warmth of our VE 25, I was rewarded with the gift of the most beautiful starry sky I have ever seen. Shivering in my fleece jacket and tights, I savored a sight I may never see again in my lifetime.

We started the hike to Kala Patthar at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, hoping to reach the summit before sunrise above Everest. The trail to Kala Patthar is not kind — it hits you with a severe slope and series of false summits just when you’re most exhausted and wanting to get to the apex of your journey. But we soldiered on, with adrenaline and desire pushing us up the final scramble to the top, at 5,500 meters (18,200 feet).

We beat the sun, arriving in the shadow of Mount Everest and Nuptse, with Lhotse hidden behind. We unfurled our prayer flags, and J tied them up and let them speak to the wind in memory of his brother Gary.

It’s a hard feeling to describe, sitting on a rock regarding Mount Everest as the sun rises in the Himalayas. We felt a sense of achievement, a bit of relief, abundant awe and gratitude, and a lot of just … happiness. This world can be so scary, so fast moving, so out of control, so easy to despair over. But for a moment in our life, the world was none of those things. It was pure and simple. We walked there. We saw the biggest mountain on Earth and it was beautiful.


This post is the last in a series about my trip to Nepal in 2005. The series starts here.