Lisbon Life

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Portugal sits at the western edge of Europe, with Spain along one side and the Atlantic Ocean along the other. With a stunning coastline, beautiful capital city and world-class food and wine, it has all the elements of a perfect European destination. But in the world of travel and tourism, Portugal is almost always overshadowed by its more popular neighbors. Spain and France together attract more than 150 million foreign tourists every year while Portugal only recently surpassed 10 million in 2016.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

This is good news for anyone going to Portugal, as we discovered last spring. We enjoyed uncrowded streets and affordable accommodations throughout our trip. We started in Lisbon, where the history is serious but the attitude and terrain feel a lot like San Francisco. The city clings to a hillside overlooking the mouth of the Tagus river. Coming and going from our apartment in the Chiado district, we were always walking uphill or downhill on our way to the next stop.

Through the centuries, Lisbon has succumbed to the control of Berbers, Arabs, Norwegians and Spaniards, as well as the destructive forces of fire and earthquakes. All of these influences are still visible in Lisbon’s architecture, tiles and cracks in the walls.

The city’s location on the Atlantic seems to have influenced its color palette, with all the soft shades of water, sky, sunshine and sunsets applied along every street. The joy in the colors and patterns feels unique to Lisbon. A lot of time and thought has gone into embellishing this city.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Stepping into Palácio Chiado for lunch was unexpectedly cool, not only for the unique dining areas arranged on two floors but also for the contrast of chic and antique interiors among them. Lisbon’s casual style is an eclectic mix of old and new. It never feels constructed or fake, and whether you’re dining at an up-and-coming restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef (Mini Bar; José Avillez; wonderful) or just having an afternoon beer at the Praça de São Paulo (on draft, with service and good people watching), you’re welcomed with genuine hospitality.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

With so many hills, Lisbon has lots of viewpoints where you can take in scenic views of the city. A walk up the hill to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara gave us our first vista across the city toward Castelo de Sao Jorge.

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

We took a Sunday stroll around the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s twice-weekly flea market. Any good traveler knows that market days are the best days to see local color, and the Feira da Ladra was no exception. Locals were out with a million things for sale including clothing, dishes, artwork, antiques, old tiles and Barbie dolls. I picked up a pair of Roy-Bom (Ray-Ban) sunglasses and an old brass plate with an etched design.

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Another walk took us up another hill to Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte where we could look west across the whole city to the l bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world (and very similar to the Golden Gate).

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Back down the hill and around the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we arrived at the edge of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Buildings are packed onto the hillside with narrow walkways leading down to the main street bordering the river. This is the best area in Lisbon to experience Fado, the historic art of singing traditional Portuguese songs with trademark melancholy.

The Alfama, Lisbon

The Alfama, Lisbon

At the Praça do Comércio, the sun finally burned through the haze and brightened up the afternoon. With baton twirlers and bubble blowers around, we sat and rested our feet before continuing on to the Time Out Market.

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Madeira Wine

Madeira Wine

What would a visit to Portugal be without a little Madeira wine? How amazing to see such a wide range of vintages at the market. We enjoyed a small sample poured from a bottle that was corked in 1972, the year my grandmother was traveling Europe.

The Time Out Market opened in 2014 after renovations to the complex, which has been around for more than a century. It’s a great place to grab a coffee or a gourmet bite to eat after picking up some local produce or flowers at the mercado next door. Kitchens in the market cook Lisbon’s authentic, best food (as tasted and confirmed by local experts), for affordable prices, under one roof. You can also find fresh seafood and really good charcuterie among the many delectable things to eat.

The concept has revived the neighborhood and given tourists and locals a communal place to experience Lisbon’s characteristic cuisine. And this is really at the heart why we found Lisbon so livable and lovable. The city has loads of history and beauty, but the focus really seems to be on enjoying some very basic things in life: a nice view, a good glass of wine and a great meal with friends. Who doesn’t love that?

Miscellaneous

World Textures

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

This week’s photo challenge: textures, one of my photography addictions. Hope you enjoy this amuse-bouche of textures from around the world. Next post on Portugal coming this Friday! See you then!

Bali

Bali

 

Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

New Zealand

New Zealand

 

Oman

Oman

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Bhutan

Bhutan

 

France

France

 

Bali

Bali

 

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

 

Myanmar

Myanmar

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Cambodia

Cambodia

 

Maldives

Maldives

 

Borneo

Borneo

 

Morocco

Morocco

 

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Miscellaneous wpc

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!

Miscellaneous
Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai, India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.

Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.

The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.

The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.

Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.

For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.

Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.

One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.

I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.

Miscellaneous Travel
Maldives

My Top 12 Travel Experiences by Month

Happy New Year everyone!

Thinking about where to go in 2017? Here are my top twelve travel experiences (ever, not just this year) by month. I hope you find some ideas among these journeys. Thank you all so much for reading, following, commenting and being such an inspirational community!

January: Finding Zen in the Maldives

If you want to forget about everything except the horizon in front of you, this might be the place. Yes, it’s painfully expensive but if you can get to the Maldives you’ll find every tint and shade of blue within an intense peacefulness that will inspire you to do nothing but stare at the view, put your toes in the sand and maybe swim around with the resident tropical fish.

***

February: Longtail Boating Through the Canals of Bangkok

This was a short but sweet experience that I’d love to repeat someday. Hop in a longtail boat at the edge of the Chao Praya and ask your captain to take you on a tour of the canals of Bangkok. You’ll get to see a different side of the city with a much less frenetic pace from a cool and relaxing perspective. Don’t forget to stop at the floating market for a bite to eat.

***

March: Touring Bagan’s Temples by Horse Cart

If you like history and architecture, you’ll love Bagan. The landscape is crisscrossed with paths from one ancient temple to the next. A good local guide with a horse cart can take you to the most notable temples, or you can follow your whim by looking for spires and biking your way around. It would take months to see them all, but don’t miss the Shwezigon Pagoda — covered in gold and by far the most opulent.

***

April: Safari in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations of all time. With temples, history, tea country, train rides through the hills, lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly locals and abundant wildlife, Sri Lanka has a rare combination of everything that makes traveling wonderful. My favorite experience was a three-day safari at Yala National Park with its incredible diversity — elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, deer, wild boars, foxes, crocodiles, hornbills, and leopards that are bigger in size and more densely populated than anywhere else on the planet.

***

May: Chasing Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park

When the snow stops and the spring sun shines, Yosemite National Park is in its prime. Venture to the valley floor where you’ll feel like a tiny human in the context of the thousands of years of geology surrounding you. Yosemite’s waterfalls — Upper Yosemite, Lower Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada and Vernal among them — usually reach peak flow in May. From the road, from the trail and from Glacier Point especially, they are spectacular in their power and beauty. Just don’t get too close!

***

June: A Homestay in Borneo

Saloma shares her family home with anyone seeking an authentic experience in the jungle of Borneo. We spent a few days with Saloma and marveled at her way of life and knowledge of the land. From cooking rice in a stalk of bamboo, to foraging for plants and enjoying a barbecue lunch in a hut deep in the jungle, to walking through a longhouse and meeting the neighbors, this homestay was a direct connection with a way of life unfamiliar to us but hundreds of years old in tradition. Saloma is a real-life Queen of the Jungle.

***

July: Following the Tour de France Through the Alps

Fly into Geneva, rent a car or a camper, buy some wine and cheese and hit the road into the Alps. The Tour de France is a road trip party with people from all over the world. It’s so much fun that loving the sport of cycling isn’t even necessary (but it does help). There’s a lot of waiting around partying and when the péloton finally shows up it blows past in a matter of minutes. But seeing all the pretty French villages on the route, being able to camp anywhere you want, having cheese and wine every afternoon and and doing it all over again the next day … Mon dieu! C‘est magnifique!

Runner-up for July: Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

***

August: Car Camping Through Italy

Che cazzo! I don’t have any photos of this trip since it happened way back in 2001. But if you’re looking for slow travel through Italy, car camping might just be the thing. We rented a car in Milan, drove to Florence and Rome, cut east to Francavilla, stopped in Vieste and ended the trip in Bari (before catching the ferry to Greece). We car camped the whole way, astounded by the comfort of the campgrounds — many with markets, pools, laundry facilities and restaurants. Among the best was camping on the beach in Vieste (aerobics every day at 4:00) and our spectacular campsite across the river in Florence (best view of the Duomo anywhere). Why August? Nearly all the shops and restaurants of Italy are closed in August since everyone is on vacation, but this means you’ll be immersed in local culture, make new friends and see the refined art of Italian family camping. Quite an experience — just make your campsite reservations well ahead of time.

***

September: Trekking Nepal’s Khumbu Valley

This is a true journey of a lifetime. Trekking farther into the Himalayas each day gets progressively harder and being in tune with your body is especially important. Each step and each breath gets you closer to Mount Everest and on some mornings those are the only two things you can even think about. But when you crest that mountain and see that view of Everest from Kala Patthar, there is nothing like it in the world. Mother Nature sits right in front of you with a greeting that took millions of years to get to you.

***

October: Seeing the Fall Colors from a Ryokan in Kyoto

Japan is art. There’s no other way to describe it. Immerse yourself in the composition by staying at an authentic ryoken and venturing around Kyoto’s many landmarks and gardens to see the bamboo forests and changing colors of fall. We stayed at Seikoro Ryokan and loved every minute of our stay. From the tatami mats to the sliding screen doors to the unknown dishes of our Japanese breakfast, it was a visit that has inspired us to return to Japan whenever we can to unlock the meanings of its many customs and traditions.

***

November: Touring Sa Pa’s Weekend Markets

If you want to find culture then find the night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Plan your visit around the weekend so you’ll be there for the market when minority hill tribes come down into Sa Pa from their surrounding mountain communities. Textiles, clothing, embroidery, beading and color give subtle clues to hill tribe identity. One of our best experiences was sharing a beer and hot bowls of pho with a hill tribe woman at the main market. And discovering the sewing shop and buying a quilt and a custom pair of pants — made overnight. Visiting Bac Ha, the Sunday market in the neighboring village, takes the whole experience to the next level.

***

December: Desert Camping in Oman

December had a close runner-up: Christmas markets in Germany. Whether you sip glühwein while eating a bratwurst and shopping for ornaments, or drive your 4WD vehicle into the uncharted desert to drink Omani coffee and do some sand dune sledding, you can’t go wrong. Both experiences are unique, memorable and evoke a sense of place that won’t be forgotten. I still think about Oman’s desert silence, the unexpected cold of the morning, the sunsets and shadows, and the feeling of being very far away from everything.

***

Wherever you are in 2017, I hope you find yourself in love — with life, with yourself, with each other, with the world, with the kindness and beauty that persists and will always be there for discovery. Happy New Year!

Miscellaneous Travel

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?”

***

 

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

Leaving My Heart in Havana

Havana, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Besos Discretos performed by Fusión Caribe, a fantastic band on the streets of Havana. Video follows below.

We arrive in darkness around midnight, packed in a taxi, creeping along a narrow street in La Habana Vieja. Our driver speaks very little English, but stopping and turning off the engine is a pretty clear indication that we’ve arrived at our casa particular. Our host meets us on the street and shows us into the building. We climb five flights of stairs and enter the tall wooden door to our apartment.

Even though I’ve seen the photos online, our casa particular unexpectedly sweeps me up in its aura, with its decorative floor tiles and unreachable high ceilings. The photos on the wall offer a few hints about the history of the neighborhood over the past decades. The gold chandelier looks cherished but forgotten. The refrigerator is a relic. The parlor doors swing open to the warm night air and the balcony looks out on a street where thousands of days and nights and people have come and gone in Havana. This place has so many stories to tell.

We sleep and wake up the next morning to music. It’s a fusion of sounds coming from all over — below us, out front, out back. The combined rhythms eventually pull me out of bed. No one seems to mind the noise. This is just how Cuba wakes up in the morning. I follow the strongest beat to the back of the apartment and look out from the open air dining area where I’m greeted by a bright yellow wall against a blue sky. How curious that someone has felt strongly enough to paint half a wall in such a magnetic color in such an unusual location. Like the morning music, it’s another clue about the spirit of Cuba.

View across the street in Havana

View across the street in Havana

As the morning goes on I become a dance partner with the balcony overlooking the street, where the neighborhood has come to life. Outside, inside, outside, inside… I unpack in the bedroom while taking quick little breaks to see who and what is passing by below. I see I’m not the only dancer. Everyone with a balcony has mastered this same choreography. Outside, inside. Inquire, retreat.

Havana, Cuba

Firewood delivery at the Italian café

Our casa particular is located across the street from a wonderful little Italian café where we enjoy coffee, breakfast and a warm welcome to the neighborhood. An old Ford Model T pulls up with a delivery of firewood for the café’s pizza oven. The scene in front of me probably doesn’t look all that different now than it would have in the 1930s.

Havana, Cuba

We walk to the malecón where the road and the seawall extend for several miles in a graceful curve on the north side of the city. The heat and sun are as intense as the blue of the sky and the colors of the cars driving by. These classic cars are everywhere, inspiring our constant speculation about make, model and year. It seems almost miraculous that so many are still running and in pretty great shape (the exteriors, at least) some fifty+ years since manufacture.

A tiny vintage cab shuttles us over to the cerveceria near the ferry terminal and art market. It’s our first of many experiences with live music, beer and cigars. In this heat, a cold beer tastes really good. We hang out for a couple hours and continue our walk around the city.

Most of the architecture of Havana is in dire need of restorative attention, but the remaining beauty offers tantalizing hints at how incredible this city must have been in its heyday in the early to mid-1900s. During that time, Cuba was enjoying freedom from former rule by Spain and relations between Cuba and the U.S. were functional. Havana flourished from a boom in tourism and foreign investment, but the growth of casinos and nightclubs brought gambling, prostitution and organized crime. This, along with repeated upheavals within the government, meant that the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s were prosperous but challenging.

Shortly after the Revolution and introduction of communism, foreign-owned assets were expropriated and the U.S. embargo began. Cuba set off on a new path, independent of the sources of its previous economic success. The country stagnated and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union further degraded the economy. Cuba found itself trapped in time, with no way to move forward.

Havana’s streets tell the whole story — with plazas and churches from the 1700s alongside formerly beautiful buildings left unprotected from the clutch of age. With pastel colors and Spanish Colonial features, some streets resemble an unlikely mash-up between Prague and Cuzco. Other streets are rough and decaying but there’s always at least one friendly face peeking out from a window or a doorway. In some cases, the face we see belongs to Che Guevara. His visage is everywhere and it seems he’s the most endeared figure of the Revolution.

Havana, Cuba

Plaza de San Francisco

We come to the Plaza de San Francisco and the rain begins to pour down. We rush into Restaurante Café del Oriente and feel like we’ve suddenly stepped 75 years back in time. The grit is gone and we’ve found Havana’s old opulence in this cafe’s enormous columns, Baroque crown moulding, and marble and brass bar. A young man plays a grand piano in the corner. He reads the crowd and spices things up with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in among the usual piano classics.

Havana27

The rain passes in an hour, leaving the city with a dull and dirty glow. We walk back toward our casa particular as life returns to the streets after the storm. J stops for a haircut at the local barbershop — a tradition he follows in every country we visit. He never knows what he’s gonna get, but this guy in Havana does a better job than anyone in any other country. For 10 bucks.

Havana, Cuba

We get to the casa particular and I’m sucked back into the allure of the balcony, and Havana in general. The afternoon turns to evening, I watch the world go by and I wonder why we waited so long to bypass the border and come to Cuba. As Americans, the story we hear is that Cuba is barely getting by without us … unable to really prosper without the support of its biggest neighbor. Certainly, the Cuban people do face a lot of challenges but in the one day I’ve been in Havana I’ve seen happiness, warmth, gratitude, ingenuity and prosperity. It is far from destitute and the people here have pride, energy and determination. Cuba is not a country of people sitting idle with their hands out wondering when help is going to arrive.

Our sweet old ride in Havana

Our sweet old ride in Havana

The next two days take us even deeper into the heart of Havana. We hire a driver with a classic car to take us to the sights outside of La Habana Vieja. The Hotel Nacional sits along the malecón, overlooking the ocean. Our guide tells us it’s the first time in decades that the Cuban and American flags are able to hang side-by-side at the entrance, thanks to the diplomacy of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama. Everyone we talk to about the recent political developments is happy the two nations are reconciling.

We stop at the Plaza de la Revolución — an enormous and featureless plot of pavement for important gatherings in Havana. Fidel Castro and Pope Francis have both spoken here. To the north, Che is memorialized in a steel line drawing on the side of the Ministry of Interior. The tower on the south side of the plaza is a memorial for José Martí, an intellectual who inspired Cuba’s independence from Spain. It’s fascinating to me that this island nation of just 12 million people has been the source of such dramatic history over the past 150 years — colonial rule, independence, revolts, the Revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. embargo, and the saga of Guantanamo Bay. Maybe it’s that the principle characters of Cuba’s biography have been such dramatic figures themselves and geography has unavoidably provided the stage.

Except for the book market, where these history lessons are lined up on the shelves, Havana has a peaceful demeanor that belies its tumultuous past. Business on the streets seems to be doing okay. People are selling what they can to make a living — fruit, coconuts, cleaning supplies, vintage books and magazines (Nat Geo from 1923, anyone?), and even vinegar and cooking oils in recycled bottles that have been sealed up with packing tape. Stores, on the other hand, lack any proof that basic household needs can be reliably purchased. Shelves are empty except for canned tomatoes, cooking oil, baby formula and rum. Lots of rum. Necessity has forced the invention of the thriving economy we see on the street.

Havana, Cuba

We come across a group of guys playing a fierce game of dominoes around a nicely crafted table outside an apartment building. We watch and learn, and I love that they’re not at all bothered by our curiosity. I turn to look down the street and a classic car is coming toward us. But the driver sees some friends on the sidewalk, so he just parks the car and everyone enjoys a quick catch-up on the side of the street. It is Sunday afternoon in Havana.

I can’t keep writing about Cuba if I don’t start writing about the music. The two go hand-in-hand. Never before have I been to a country where sound is such an integral part of the identity of a nation. In the handful of days we spend in Havana, we have the pleasure of hearing no less than nine groups performing on the streets and in the restaurants. Music is everywhere. It seems like everyone sings or plays an instrument, and we see a couple of the best musicians around town accompanying different bands at different times of the day.

When the maracas get shaking and the bongos start banging, the rhythm of Cuba comes alive and street corners come to a standstill as everyone gathers to enjoy the music. The musicians themselves can’t resist the call to move. Their feet, their hips, their wrists … everything moves with a little bit of flare and swirl that is uniquely Cuban. Happiness radiates. Music might be the one thing — the most enduring thing — that has carried the country through history and escaped the turmoil and economic hardship. No wonder it’s such a big part of life.

Havana, Cuba

The one and only Coronet

On our last night in Havana, J chooses one more classic car for a final spin around the city — a big, beautiful, burgundy, convertible Coronet. The only one in the entire country. As we take a look at the car, we get to know the family who owns it. The father is the driver and the son-in-law, who speaks perfect English, is the tour guide. Ingenuity meets opportunity.

We cast aside the tour map and tell the guys we just want to cruise around for an hour. The son-in-law replies, “Ooooh, you want to cruuuuuuuuze! I get it!”

We all pile into the car and dad starts the engine with a big smile. I think he’s just as excited as we are to go drive around. He pulls away from the rainbow of classic cars parked near the capitol building. We go slow. We cruuuuze. We drive 20 miles an hour as the sun sets beyond the malecón, and we couldn’t be happier seeing Havana one more time from The Coronet. It’s an experience we’ll never forget — an experience found only in Cuba.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been completely enraptured by a city but Havana has all the elements that make it happen — history, art, architecture, beauty, kind people, heart, heat, spirit and music … so much music. And the food? It’s okay. There is a lot of lobster so it could be worse. But let’s just say … the food is poised for its own revolution.

I’ll raise a mojito and toast to that, as I run out to the balcony one last time and say goodbye to Havana. I already can’t wait to come back.

Above: Fusión Caribe performing in Havana, Cuba

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Next post: Trinidad

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Experience