January 30, 2010

Steamer trunks and leather grips

Cabin trunks which are sometimes called "true" steamer trunks, were today's equivalent of carry-on luggage. They were low-profiled and small enough to fit under the berths of trains or in the cabin of a steamer, hence their name. Most were built with flat-tops and had inner tray compartments to store the owner's valuables deemed too precious to keep stowed away in the main luggage train or berth.

My grandmother and her sisters used to tell me the best stories of their lives growing up in the Northwest. Their father was an executive with a shipping company, and each sister had a chance to take these incredible journeys on the ships he was in charge of. The old photographs show these grand images of laughing groups of men and women, all in formal attire.

Spending time with my grandmother and her sisters meant that, besides hearing exciting stories, I might also have a chance to open their old steamer trunks. One never knew what you would find inside their trunks, or what new story you might hear. These experiences certainly fed my dreamy imagination as a child.

My grandmother had her leather grip packed with photos and her belongings, until the day she passed away. When she visited us, it was so exciting to sit on her bed and watch her unlace the straps and then smell the inside lining as she opened her grip. This name she used for her suitcase, itself was straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie for me. It spoke to my sense of romance and adventure, and the hours of old black and white movies I used to watch.

A little dust never stopped me from pulling out a feather fan snapping it open and asking, sometimes demanding, to hear its history. I was sure to learn about a party on their way to 1920’s Japan, or an excursion to the Philippines. Hearing how my great grandfather managed his finances and his daughters’ families through the Depression makes me very proud.

Inside one of those trunks were letters, dictated to my great grandfather’s male secretary who accompanied him on his travels, written on hotel stationary describing his immediate work but also detailing his expectations from his girls and their financial need for the year. They each had to submit a list of their expenses and he’d go through them, even while he was traveling on business trips.

These stories gave me a love of family history and for travel. In my dreams, without the 3-1-1 TSA restrictions and full body x-ray scans, travel would include a worn leather grip and a handmade Louis Vuitton trunk. I did say dreams right?

January 25, 2010

Winter Blues? Close your eyes and try walking into a photo...

It is usually around this time of the year that I start to get a little blue. It is mostly due to the cold weather that seems to never end, and the persistent gray skies. Like many people, come January and February I probably could benefit from some light therapy.

One idea that is free, but has helped me, is visualization. I take a photograph like the one here, and pretend that I am there. Using photos of places that I have been to, like this photo taken at a La Pesquera in Marbella, Spain seems to help me with the process.

My technique is to close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths and then quietly walk into the photo. Think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis or maybe The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. For me, I try to visibly relax my posture and with my closed eyes begin by hearing the sounds inside the photo.

Can you hear the surf? There goes a little boy riding his bike along the boardwalk. I can hear the sound of coffee cups in their saucers being set on the café tables. A big family just arrived and are noisily pulling out their chairs. The conversation is loud as their voices excitedly talk over each other, while looking hungrily at the menu. Off in the distance, I hear a jet ski fly across the waves. A well-dressed older lady slowly walks by, stopping suddenly to pet and kiss her little dog affectionately.

Next my nose starts to work, and my sense of smell goes through the photo. With this photo I immediately smell the Mediterranean sea. Next my nose picks up the faint scent of fresh fish being cooked in the kitchen of this restaurant. I smell the perfume of the mother sitting at the table near us. A waiter walks buy with a tray held high and I smell the seafood paella pan - the saffron rice aroma wafts above my head.

And finally, I begin to feel my way though the photo. My feet touch the wooden planks as I walk out to the put my toes into the sand. I bend down and scoop up a worn shell. My face gravitates towards the sun on the horizon, feeling its warmth even on this November day. The temperature outside is not hot, but my skin warms from a brisk walk to the waters edge and back. My arm feels the pull of my heavy tote, with its guidebook, camera and assorted travel contents.

I breathe in deeply all the smells around, listening to the music of this coastal town in Spain and decide to sit for a while – soaking up the winter sun, knowing that I have found one more place on Earth that speaks to me. Feeling this connection to a new place cheers me and adds to my certainty that I am a global citizen.

This sort of virtual travel only takes your imagination mixed with a little boost from your own photo. If you don't have any try using a travel magazine or the images at National Geographic. Being blue isn't fun for me and if you have similar feelings, maybe if you try something like this it will help - let me know.

January 20, 2010

Guardians are all around us

January 16, 2010

Arabesques: Notes from Southern Spain

Geometry was not my best subject in high school but the nerd in me feels a certain affinity to shapes. When we were in walking the grounds of The Alhambra in Spain, the intricate carvings in the walls were mesmerizing for me. It was easy to walk with your head up in the air or stuck in place staring for long minutes at various walls inside and outside the grounds.

Part of me wondered if there was some sort of hidden meaning behind all of the carvings. It felt that way, and they also reminded me a little of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and images. Walking through the Alhambra every inch is covered with carving, from the doorways all the way up to the ceiling. The arabesques cover the exterior walls also. Can you imagine the intensity of the work, especially when you note all the long curves and swirls that don't end in the patterns.

Here are a few of my favorite designs along with a definition from Wikipedia that helped explain what is behind these patterns.

The arabesque is an artistic motif that is characterized by the application of repeating geometric forms and fancifully combined patterns; these forms often echo those of plants and animals. Arabesques are, as their name indicates, elements of Islamic art often found decorating the walls of mosques. The choice of which geometric forms are to be used and how they are to be formatted is based upon the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many in the Islamic world, they concretely symbolize the infinite, and therefore uncentralized, nature of the creation of the one God (Allah). Furthermore, the Islamic Arabesque artist conveys a definite spirituality without the iconography of Christian art.

January 11, 2010

Carpets and Sales Pitches in Morocco

Part of spending the day in Tangier, Morocco meant going to a carpet dealer and listening to fifteen minutes of really educational information on the history and world of carpets, then spending another thirty minutes not making eye contact with several dozen men drafting behind and beside you within the showroom.

The history of carpet making is actually really interesting. Learning that spices such as saffron are still used to get that warm color dye for carpets. I enjoyed how they rolled out several different carpets to illustrate the difference in how the number of threads per square inch affects color and heft. On a side note, I was a little distracted by our educator's pointy yellow mules. Couldn't tell if they were leather but he pulled the look off so much that I came really close to buying a pair.

If you go, don't worry about the hard sell. Inside the showroom they do seem to take your lead, and if you don't want to buy then they will quickly move off to someone else who either is showing interest or at least is waffling on the fence. It is the guys outside in the narrow streets and alleys that you have to be firm and direct with if you have no interest in buying anything. They are all about getting that one tourist or visitor before you make it to the neutral zone, which is just before the gangplank of the ship returning you to Spain.

We didn't buy anything on this trip but I really did enjoy listening to the pitch and the information in general. Once inside the showroom I felt relaxed enough to close my eyes at one point and imagine what this experience would have been like without the walls and more than a hundred years ago. I also had a quick second of joy by replacing our salesmen with that actor who is in the Mummy movies, Brandon something?

If you get a chance to go to one of these cities or showrooms, go. It is worth the unique experience, and once you know the rules it takes a lot of the stress off of you. Imagine you are back during the times of Aladdin or Lawrence of Arabia if that helps. Trust me, it is the same everywhere. I have had similar experiences in Bali, Bangkok and even San Francisco.

January 9, 2010

Yosemite in January is as slow as molasses

Winter in Yosemite is just as beautiful as it is in the summer, only without the crowds. The pace is slow. You can go for a walk and its nature that is making the noise rather than people talking. The waters gurgle as a raucous group of crows play in the snow alongside an empty parking lot.

It was during this visit that we came also across of this little fella or lady?

This is one of my favorite photos from the January morning when we left, and the day I got a speeding ticket shortly after leaving the park.

Who speeds out of Yosemite? My intention wasn't to leave this gorgeous national park so quickly, only that once we were completely out of the park the landscape between it and San Francisco isn't as mesmerizing and my lead foot got the best of me.

There you have it, my first new year resolution completed. #1 be more forthcoming within my writing even if it is unflattering. Check.

January 7, 2010

A Day in Kyoto - Five Favorites

I loved Kyoto. While living in Japan for three years, I didn't make the trip there until near the end of my stay. And I wished I had gone sooner.

It is all that you imagine of Japan when you read books or see movies. Lots of temples, beautiful quiet walk ways, serene even with the volume of people. Quite the opposite of Tokyo.

The hustle and bustle has a different pace, it is present but in a more purposeful way, as if in harmony with nature. You also have more opportunities in a smaller radius, to experience the Japan of yesterday. The solitude of a walk down an alley, or actual minutes alone at a temple - you would have a hard time finding this in Tokyo.

While we spent the day there, we saw actual geisha and someone dressed as geisha for a photo shoot. We walked down quiet cobblestone alleys without fear of getting lost because it seemed as if all paths and roads, big or small led to a temple or an open square with bench and relaxing fountain perfect for you to rest and regain your sense of direction.

My favorite five things to see and do in Kyoto in a day:

  1. Ginkaku-ji - The Silver Pavilion, which is a Zen temple. The building intended to be a monument to ostentation (supposed to be all silver) turned out to be a fine example of Japanese refinement and restraint. The sand garden is hypnotic. This is also the first time I have ever seen someone sweeping, with a broom and not a rake, a grassy hillside.
  2. Kiyomizu-dera - A Buddhist temple where not one nail is used in the whole temple. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex. This temple has the most spectacular views! We stopped and had tea here just to make the experience last a little longer.
  3. Walk the Philosopher's Pathway between these temples and along the most peaceful canal. The experience is so relaxing and allows you to soak up all that is really Kyoto.
  4. Nijō Castle - Feudal lords in Western Japan were ordered to build this castle in 1601 by the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kyoto Imperial Palace is located north-east of Nijo Castle.
  5. Eat Savory and Sweet - Some of the best takoyaki is found here and the delicious rice treat filled with sweet red bean known as mochi. If you go during cherry blossom season, the sakura mochi is out of this world! Beautiful to look at and yummy! We were in Kyoto a little early but still managed to find shops selling mochi in delicate shades of pink, blue and white. It felt like a Japanese Easter for me. And the octopus chunks within the takoyaki are amazing. Savory with the sweet and smoky sauce drizzled on top. I love the shaved katsuo bushi flakes (like a savory dried tuna) on top.

Two days are better than one but if that is all you have, much can be gained from those 24 hours in Kyoto. We did it. If you find yourself headed to Asia, and can make this your destination or even just a 24 hour excursion - do it! Kyoto is beautiful and worth the extra effort getting there, even for just a day.

Kyoto ceramics photo by Sharon Castellanos
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