Bologna, Florence and Venice

Bologna is an underrated Italian city with a tumultuous recent history. It is known as “La dotta (the learned), la rossa (the red), and la grassa (the fat)! The first nickname is given to Bologna because of its well-respected university. Founded in 1088, many intellectual heavyweights, Dante, Petrarch and Thomas Becket among them, have frequented this institution. There is a tradition among the university students in Bologna to climb one of the very tall towers in the city. This tower should only be climbed after you graduated, as tradition says that if it is climbed before you might never finish your studies! Finishing my degree a few months back, I felt qualified to torture myself on the endless stairs with no view until I reached magnificent views of the city on top: an experience not unlike doing a PhD!

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Bologna

The strong intellectual tradition of “la dotta” probably supported alternative and progressive ways of thinking that gave the city its second name: the red. While this name was initially given to the city because of the red roof tiles used throughout, later on it became to denote the Leftist tendencies of the citizens. Bologna was a major center of partisan resistance against the Fascists. Being a transport hub, it was bombed extensively during the WWII and was the scene of much fighting. It was the hometown of the controversial director, Pier Paolo Pasoloni (of Salo and Accattone fame), who was viciously murdered by fascists in Rome. Judging from fresh wall graffiti about ISIS and Kobane Resistance, the movement is still strong here. When growing up in Iran, I used to watch Fontamara, a TV series based on the work of Italian Leftist author Ignazio Silone. I later read the novel, and also another one by Silone, called Bread and Wine, and was deeply affected by the pain and suffering that he described. Walking under the cool porticos of Bologna, I think of these books and how we have now forgotten how large parts of Italy were once overridden by poverty, which brings me to the next nickname of Bologna, la grassa.

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In my opinion, the beauty of Italian cooking is (for the most part) that it is focused on feeding ordinary people. Many of the best dishes are made with cheap but high quality ingredients. This is apparent in Roman cooking, Carbonara and the Roman Rigatoni con la Pajata (and the many dishes that use the fifth quarter), and also in the excellent food of Bologna, Ragu alla Bolognese (the mother of all red pasta sauces) and Tortellini. Bologna is the center of the Emilia-Romagna Region (of the Parmigiano Reggiano fame) and is close to Modena with the best balsamic vinegar in the world. In short, a visitor will have a hard time staying fit in this area!

For more fun info about Bologna, check out this Italy Unpacked episode.

Florence

Florence has been the home to many famous people: Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, …It’s streets are full of history and a simple stroll through its central part (if you don’t mind the heat and crowds, especially in July/August) is rewarding and rich.

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My favorite part of the city was the Piazza della Signoria, which houses amazing statues (in Loggia dei Lanzi), provides excellent people watching and is the gateway to river side walking. A hidden gem is a water fountain that offers free delicious lightly carbonated water!

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I enjoyed several excellent galleries in Florence, but two contrasting highlights stayed in my mind. The Uffizi Gallery, perhaps the most popular gallery in Florence, houses an exquisite collection of Renaissance art. One of the greatest experience for me was to see many austere but beautiful Middle Ages and Early Renaissance artwork before coming face to face with the fantastic Botticelli paintings that brought back the celebration of humanity from the Greek and Roman art and put them in a new context.

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In contrast to the Ufizzi Gallery, the San Marco Monastery was quiet and pensive. Visionary paintings by the legendary Fra Angelico graced bare-bones monk cells. It is a good reminder that despite Italy’s sensual reputation

Venice

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Getting lost in Venice is an essential experience. I walk around at least for an hour before finding my hostel. Venice is extremely touristy which makes it a bit hard to enjoy. But if you persist and walk through the crowds and the heat, there are magical spaces here and there: Marco Polo‘s home, a Vivaldi museum with ancient and exotic instruments, old buildings turned into exhibits and little islands that are suddenly empty and feel like medieval mazes.

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I take the 6 am water bus which is empty and passes through many great buildings: the old castle in which Wagner died and is now a famous casino, the Muslim and Jewish areas, St. Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs (which connect the palace to a prison).

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In a few hours tourists start trickling into the city (from huge cruise ships and via the train station) and the city becomes really full. At first the heat and the crowds make it hard to continue enjoying the sights and then I realize this is part of the experience too. In fact, the “siege of Venice” by tourists is quite controversial and has been blamed for pushing locals out of increasingly expensive real estate. See this documentary for more information about this topic.

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Italy is touristy, there’s no denying that. Before modern tourism became accessible to everyone, aristocrats from Northern Europe would travel here on what came to be known as the Grand Tour. On an itinerary that often included Rome and Florence and often ended in Venice, young aristocratic members of society would seek Classic history, art and culture. The purpose of this trips that sometimes took months was more than sightseeing. Often young aristocrats were accompanied by a tutor or learned man and were trained in the Classics, History, Languages, …. The idea was that this privileged experience would get them ready to hold high positions in their society. Of course, an essential part of the trip was socializing and partying with other elite which often happened in Venice in masked balls (from which the concept of Masquerade comes from).

This tradition, which started in the 18th century, continued well into the 19th and 20th century and some would argue the “Gap Year” concept is a modern democratic version of it. Later travelers on a Grand Tour included the Romantics, English poets Shelly, Keats and Byron, and later on the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt who was inspired by his travels to compose his famous Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) piano album. I often had this piece from Liszt in my head when traveling in Italy.

Given the Romantics fascination with nature as a source of inspiration, later Grand Tour itineraries often included natural scenery, such as the Alps in Northern Italy and Switzerland and more secluded parts of central Italy (for example, the Cinque Terre, which was secluded then but is overrun with tourists now!)

Bonus: Epilogue

At some point during my stay in Italy, I decided to take a break from large cities and spent a couple of days in the medieval village of San Gimignano. This beautiful hill town is set in the rolling landscape of Tuscany and is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It is also a popular destination for pilgrims as it is on the Camino di San Francisco di Assisi that connects Florence to Rome.

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During my stay, I went for long walks in the surrounding area, tried some local specialties (olive gelato, anyone?) and stayed at a quiet monastery. I also visited an unexpected exhibit about the work of Robert Capa in Italy. Robert Capa was a Hungarian war photographer who  captured many historic moments in photographs, including the Allied landing in Normandy. Capa’s life was one of sacrifice and tragedy. He was in love with the first female war photographer, Gerda Taro, who was killed while covering the Spanish Civil War. He also saw many colleagues and friends get injured and die during the five wars he covered. He famously said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough”. Unfortunately, he was once too close and blew up on a mine in Vietnam.

San Gimigano.pngWalking around San Gimignano was delightful and I spent a few full days walking beside vineyards and farms and enjoying classic Tuscan landscapes. I once met a fellow traveler who told me about an Italian tradition of planting rose bushes next to vineyards. He said the roses usually catch pests earlier than vines, giving farmers advance warning to save their crops.

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Thinking about Time in the Eternal City

Funny how as we get older, we try to compensate for our lost years by contemplating our achievements: titles, possessions, family, experiences. We think of the money we made, the degrees we earned, the children we raised, the loves we felt, and after a time of reflection, we like to think, “Time flies, but I have lived!” But what is time? And what is the value of a life? What is the meaning of this coming, being and going? You know, the usual heavy-weight existential questions!

I am walking around Rome and, of course, it is natural to think of these thoughts here.  In the presence of seemingly timeless monuments of empires and religions and lives, lived in the same physical location but in a distant point in time and with inconceivably different frames of mind, many artists, philosopher and thinkers have thought about the fleeting nature of life in the Eternal City. Shelly pondering the death of his young poet friend, Keats, said, “Go thou to Rome, at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness”. And I have come!

In my backpack, I have a copy of Boethius‘s Consolation of Philosophy, a number of mental postcards from Michelangelo, Liszt and Spartacus among others, and a series of existential questions of my own. In Rome and the Vatican (and in many other parts of Italy), I am standing on a stage that has been the set for many serious plays. The performers are long gone but the props are still there. Take the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. It was once carved to guard a tomb in ancient Egypt. When Caesar defeated Cleopatra it was brought to Rome and placed besides the Colosseum. There, for hundreds of years, it witnessed gladiator fights and possibly Christians being thrown to the lions. With the Roman Empire‘s decline, it was moved to the heart of Catholic Christianity, the Vatican City. It has been there longer than any pope and has outlived civil wars and world wars, and is still standing there now that I’m visiting for a fleeting moment. The history of Rome is very rich and full of intricacies and nuances. If you are a history buff, check out the History of Rome podcast (Warning: it is pretty detailed, so be prepared for many hours if you are planning to listen to it!)

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Colosseum

Ideas are liquid and can transcend time and space, and yet, some aspects of a civilization have to be experienced in specific locations. While it is possible to get a sense of a painting by looking at a representation, it is almost impossible to experience a sculpture by looking at pictures or even videos of it. Virtual reality might change that in the future but for now you need to go to the Vatican Museums or the Villa Borghese to experience the masterpieces there. Similarly, it is hard to simulate being in a special architectural space, for example looking up to the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica or around the Pantheon‘s sacred space. And then, there’s just some spaces that are pregnant with energy and emotion: the spartan meditation cells of the San Marco monastery that house luminous Fra Angelico frescoes, or the Sistine Chapel, with its backbreaking ceiling masterpiece and breathtaking Last Judgement painting. It is quite an experience walking through the endless corridors of the Vatican Museums, up and down stairs, tired and hot and suddenly turn a corner to be face-to-face with the End of Time! Famously, when Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, saw the Last Judgement, he fell to his knees and said, “may God forgive our sins!”

When growing up in Iran, I learned a lot about the pinnacles of Western Civilization: the paintings of Leonardo, the philosophies of Socrates and Plato, the music of Beethoven and Bach. But with limited access to Europe, my relationship to the West was like having a pen pal that you have never met in person: you can learn a lot about them but not experience their presence fully. In the last few years, I have visited this friend repeatedly, finding out more about their temperament each time. In Rome the the first masterpiece that blows my mind is the sculpture of Laocoon and His Sons. How can stone capture the anguish in the man’s face, the scream of “we exist!” in his pronounced muscles the moment before they will be crushed by snakes, and the poetry of Humanity in the grip of Fortuna? This Greek masterpiece was excavated in the 1500’s and paraded through the streets of Rome after being hidden in dirt for almost a millennium. It was a sensation and shook the art world at the time. Among the people who saw it and were changed forever, was a young polymath, Michelangelo.

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Laocoon and His Sons

Michelangelo only saw the Greek sculptors of the past as true masters and did not consider his contemporaries in their league. Famously, he was fond of a badly damaged Greek sculpture known as the “Belvedere Torso” (at display in the Vatican Museums). Of the figure that was once whole, only part of the torso is left. Michelangelo used to touch this figure for inspiration and when Pope Julius II requested that he complete it by attaching hands and legs to it, he declined, saying it was too beautiful to be altered.

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Belvedere Torso

Michelangelo is, perhaps, best known for his more dramatic works, for example David, but he was fully capable of bringing out the most tender feelings out of stone. Later on that day, I looked at his Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. In this work and other masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael who paint the same subject, I feel the timeless sadness of loss of innocence in the face of ignorance . Artists are often the conscience of humanity. Looking at the  contrast between the Christian images of suffering and the Roman symbols of triumph, sometimes placed next to each other, I also think of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality in which he contrasts Roman and Christian values.

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Deposition by Raphael

Out on the street, Rome is like a piping hot bowl of spaghetti with a rich sauce: chaotic, unexpected, full of character and ultimately wonderful! In a 15 minute walk from the Colosseum to a restaurant, I walk through the backstage of a Hollywood gladiator flick, a Fellini movie set, and into a scene from a Mario Puzo novel. Inside the museums, I am face to face with timeless masterpieces. In the National Museum, I look into the empty eyes of a Boxer at Rest who has been resting for more than 2000 years!

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Boxer at Rest

In the Villa Borghese (or more precisely the Galleria within the villa), my mind is blown again: this time by Bernini‘s masterpiece the Rape of Proserpina. I can’t believe that the artist could capture such raw emotions through stone: the anguish of Proserpina, the lust of Zeus, the madness of his dog, all literally bare naked for us to encounter! I walk around the statue and look at how Zeus‘ fingers dig into Proserpina‘s flesh and how her hair flows: unbelievable! This brilliance is repeated in other masterpieces: Apollo and Daphne, Bernini‘s David, and Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius.

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Rape of Proserpina

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Detail from the Rape of Proserpina

Another idea blow my mind in Villa Borghese: When looking into the eyes of wild drunken Satyrs on the roof of a large gallery, I am suddenly face-to-face with drunken saints of Rumi! I remembered his ecstatic poem from Divan-e Shams (my translation):

“I am drunk and you are mad, who is going to take us home?

I told you a hundred times drink less, my friend!

I don’t see a sober man in this whole town,

Each worst than the others, mad and drunk!”

It suddenly occurred to me that maybe the mystical obsession with wine and drunkenness (as a symbol of divine unity and ecstasy) in Persian Sufi culture is related to the Cult of Dionysus. In fact, given the ancient history of wine in Persia, it is conceivable that wine was introduced to Greece (and later Rome) via Persia (and Egypt). Wine later became a sacred sacrament and an essential part of Dionysian Mysteries. Perhaps, later on it was re-imported into Persia as a symbol of the path to divinity. To go a step further, maybe Persian mysticism was a resurrection of Dionysian Mysteries, with an Islamic flavor but with the same symbols of ancient Greece. With these far out ideas, I decide I need to learn if anyone has looked into these themes before and also to learn more about Dionysian Mysteries in general. I also remember Nietzsche‘s poetic descriptions of the tensions between Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Greek tragedy (in his Birth of Tragedy) and how art, and specifically tragedy according to him, aimed to resolve it.

Dizzy with these thoughts, I walk down a wide Roman street at night towards my hostel. I pass a dodgy park where drunk young men are throwing empty beer bottles at each other! As I walk by, I see posters on the wall of a museum. They are quotes by a philosopher. I read: “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. Loneliness for the soul, is like food for the body. If one does not know which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” The final poster reveals that the quotes are by Seneca. The wise words echo the wonderful book I have been reading: Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. In addition to the visual arts of Michelangelo and Bernini among others, I have been sitting at the foot of  wise men who can tell me which port I should set sail to.

I found the Consolation in a free book bin on a Toronto curb one day and decided to keep it for future reading. This year as I was getting prepared for my trip to Europe, I decided to bring it along and read it on the way. As I started to read the text, I started to feel that the book was talking directly to me and I hungrily read it from cover to cover!

In the last year, I have been thinking of the questions I started this post with: What is the value of my life? What is the meaning of life and how does that translate into my next practical steps in life? As I am getting older, I feel these questions are becoming more urgent. In the past, I have looked at various spiritual traditions and social movements for inspiration but in the last couple of years, I have felt a bit depleted of direction. Additionally, recently, difficult situations have happened in my life where I have lost contact with some dear friends that I still miss and reconciling these events with my life has been challenging. Finally, I have become disillusioned in some of my ideals, but still firm in others. In short, for me, it has been, and still is, a time of questioning and reflection. I sometimes miss my past youthful passion and happy-go-lucky spirit of inquiry!

Boethius was a 6th century scholar and statesman with a brilliant mind. In addition to serving the Roman empire, he was a philosopher who was particularly interested in the philosophy of the Greeks (especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). At the height of his power, Boethius was accused of treason and was sent to jail to await his death sentence. He wrote the Consolation when waiting to die in prison. Given this grim setting, it is not a surprise that the beginning of the book is pretty dark. In jail, Boethius is visited upon by Lady Philosophy who after asking a few questions proceeds to “heal” him from his despair by means of Reason and Truth. The mood slowly moves from Despair to Joy, which given the circumstances is incredible!

In an early passage, Lady Philosophy states:

“He is in no real danger. He merely suffers from a lethargy, a sickness that is common among the depressed. He has forgotten who he really is, but he will recover, for he used to know me, and all I have to do is cloud the mist that beclouds his vision.”

When I read this passage, I was shocked by how relevant it felt to me. I wanted to have the clouds removed from my eyes. I read on. According to Lady Philosophy, a wise person should not put their trust in flighty Fortuna. Good and bad fortune come and go, and more often than not, they disappoint. History is full of examples of people who were “fortunate” and lost their fortune and vice versa. In the face of this flux, it is important to find an anchor, a Northern Star to guide one.

During the last few months, the world has seemed very random to me. My days seem to have been ruled by chance meetings and good and bad events that like waves have washed up against my shore. Lady Philosophy advises Boethius (and I listen carefully) that if you find your inner Truth, you will become free of your reliance on Fortuna and will gain knowledge of your next steps in life.

Again, I am astonished by how these words are similar to Persian Mystics that I am familiar with: Hafiz, Rumi and Khayaam. I know that the Persian poets were influenced by Greek and Roman philosophies but my intuition is that this went beyond “influence” and was more like a “reminder” of a Truth that they both knew. I read on. In my interpretation of the next passages, I understand that the only thing that is worth pursuing in the world is True Happiness, which unlike achievements, falls outside the realm of Time.  Truth is the one drop of eternity that we carry within and that lights our path in the world from one tiny step to the next. In the face of adversity and change, the one constant is the Truth in our heart.  Like a blind person following a silky rope, we will know our next steps in life if we follow our heart and see how it resonates with Love.

I have to say the combination of these ideas and the art I have experienced in Rome turned out to be a powerful eye-opening cocktail! The Consolation is full of other great ideas (including excellent discussions around the questions of free will and predestination) but for me its best gift, its greatest “consolation”, is its reassurance that I should trust my inner voice again, and walk within the world but free of it. I will strive to do this and aim to step on my path again, a path that has to be discovered and lived anew, every moment.

Thailand

Bangkok

The word “overwhelming” comes to mind when trying to describe Bangkok, and not in a bad way. There is so much to see, to taste and to think about that the city might give one a culture (and heat) shock!

The morning after I arrived in Bangkok, I walked from my hotel to a sidewalk restaurant and had a breakfast of fried rice and egg. It was excellent and invigorating with the right amount of chili to wake me up and give me strength to face the multitude of crowds that I encountered next at the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Palace.

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Ornaments at Wat Phra Kaew

Many many tour groups had lined up to get into the temple and, for a minute, I considered not going inside and heading back to the same breakfast stall for another serving of rice and some more relaxation. However, I persisted, stood in line for my tickets and walked into a stunning area that was covered in fantastic paintings, ornaments and sculptures. Given the number of people, it was hard to navigate the space and I sat on a step and read through the description in my guidebook for some, well, guidance.

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Mural detail, Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew is absolutely stunning; the buildings are beautiful and highly ornamented and the walls all around are covered in highly detailed paintings with motifs from the story of Rama and Sita. There is so much to see that one can easily spend hours just looking at the paintings. A great feature is that golden colors are incorporated into the paintings, such that they glow from a distant in the light, giving them a magical quality that is hard to describe.

The most sacred sight in the temple is the Jade Buddha. There are many stories and legends that surround this holy image and the room in which it is housed is full of praying pilgrims.

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Grand Palace, building with European body and Thai-style roofs

After spending a few hours in the temple I moved to the Grande Palace, which is used only for very special occasions such as coronations or royal funerals. The most interesting building for me was a large place that was built entirely in a European style but with Thai style roofs. The story being that it was designed in Europe but once the building was near to being finished the king was convinced to incorporate Thai elements into its architecture. Thus, giving it a final Thai touch.

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Animated story at Museum Siam

After visiting Wat Phra Kaew, I went into a small museum, Museum Siam, that was air-conditioned, full of interactive displays about the culture and history of Thailand, and specifically Bangkok, and provided a nice respite from the heat.

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Thai Coffees are to die for!

After this break, I had a nice Thai coffee and headed for the second temple on my schedule, the Wat Pho. This temple was much more chilled out than the first one and I found the atmosphere and many Buddha statues there relaxing. Among the statues in this temple were some Western looking characters that the guide explained might have been inspired by Marco Polo!

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Marco Polo as temple guardian?

As I walked around the temple, I saw a small room with the oldest inscriptions that describe the principles of Thai massage. This temple is believed to be the first place where this art and technique started to be taught and, therefore, has immense historical importance.

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Thai massage tablet

Given this significance, I decided to go into an on-site massage clinic and try a massage by an expert practitioner. I entered a big hall with neatly placed massage mats on the floor and many people getting Thai massages that looked more like partner Yoga poses to me. A couple of very old monks went ahead of me to get a massage. I was paired up with a polite young man and for an hour he pressed pressure points and pulled and pushed on my limbs. At times it was pretty painful but afterwards I felt much more relaxed and, how to say, fluid in my body!

After the massage, I took a commuter boat ride across the Chao Phraya River; the afternoon views were beautiful and I was starting to feel tired. As I was walking back to my hotel, I came across a university cafeteria and had a tasty salad there. People are very fond of having many small meals throughout the day in this part of the world and I had decided to follow suit!

As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a riverside park where a very energetic and small Asian lady with a big speaker system was giving group workout instructions to a similarly energetic and enthusiastic group of middle aged Asian ladies. At the back of the group an older European gentleman who looked like Bukowski in a sleeveless shirt and shorts was also following the instructions with a serious expression on his face.

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Many strange things can be had on Khao San Road

After getting back to the hotel and having a few lethargic resting hours, I decided to go for a little walk on the legendary Khao San Road.

The Khao San Road is legendary among travelers (especially backpackers and hippies) in Asia and … rightly so! It is a wild street full of travelers of all kinds, tourists, vagabonds, local hip Thais and everything in between walking through a street that offers many forms of (legal) worldly pleasures, from mouth-watering food (although definitely not authentic) to all kinds of drinks (and gases, laughing gas was apparently on order too!) to all kinds of BBQ’d creepy crawlies (e.g., worms, scorpions and cockroaches)! I walked down the street a couple of times and listened to the many cover bands (including an excellent Nirvana cover band) from the street and then walked back to my hotel for a sound night sleep.

In my second day in Bangkok, I continued my exploration with the usual theme of temples, museum and food. I visited Wat Saket, which is perched high on top of a hill overlooking Bangkok and has been there way before the skyscrapers started to scrape the sky!

I also visited an excellent museum called the Jim Thompson House. This is the former house of an American-born expat who was fascinated in Thai culture and single-handedly revived an appreciation for Thai silk though advocating for it New York fashion shows.

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Spirit House

Mr. Thompson had build his house in the original Thai style and had gathered together a very nice and eclectic collection of antiques from around the world. Among the many interesting objects in his house were a pair of astrology drawings that predicted a dangerous time for him when he turns 61. In fact, he disappeared without a trace that year when he was on an expedition in Malaysia! During the tour, I found out that it is a Thai tradition to make when a house is made, an altar be erected for the spirits who used to dwell in the land so they can move there and be happy. I saw many of these small spirit houses throughout my trip.

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Lights of Soi Cowboy

I continued with a walk in Chinatown where bird nest soup and (unfortunately) shark fin soup were advertised on shop windows. I ended my Bangkok tour by a compulsory walk through the infamous Soi Cowboy, aka the Brightest Street in Bangkok! Apparently, the name of this street comes from a retired American airman who opened one of the first gogo-bars here in the 1970s and used to wear a cowboy hat! As it was mid-week, this street was not super busy but still many girls in scant clothing were standing in the street and trying to talk to groups of walking men.

Once I exited the surprisingly short street, I was surprised to see a group of young Persian men sitting on a nearby platform and listening to one of their friends singing a Persian song, “yar-e man…”. With this nostalgic voice in my ears and the glow of the lights in my eyes, I thought about all the lonely men, from American soldiers to European and Middle Eastern tourists and everyone in between, who have walked these streets. And the many women whose lives somehow became entangled with the Brightest Street in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai

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Temple at night

The Northern town of Chiang Mai, a city close to the border with Myanmar, provides a nice relief from the heat and crowds of Bangkok. Many travelers who are interested in outdoor activities or visiting hill tribes use Chiang Mai (or its smaller neighbor Chiang Rai) as a base. Being a backpacker and tourist haven provides ample amenities for the weary traveler but can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Chiang Mai was famously featured in the Chinese slapstick comedy blockbuster, Lost in Thailand, which prompted a lot of Chinese tourists to visit it in the last few years.

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Temple in Chiang Mai

I started my visit with exploring some of Chiang Mai many exquisite temples which are within easy walking distance from each other and each have unique features. Temples here have a different style from Bangkok and are often made from wood. The architecture and ornaments are breathtaking. In my humble opinion, the carvings at one of these temples, the Wat Buppharam, were the most exquisite. Paradoxically, this temple also included a bizarre Donald Duck statue among the traditional artifacts!

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Collection of artifacts at Wat Buppharam

Vibrant night markets are another great feature of Chiang Mai. On weekends endless rows of sellers present craft works, art pieces, food and everything-in-between to a slow river of flowing people. During these nightly walks, I tried some of the tastiest curries I’ve ever had. They were served in thin plastic bags, were piping hot (both temperature and spice heat) and absolutely delicious! I remember sitting beside the road with a couple of bags of fiery curry mixed with fragrant rice, and burning with joy!

 

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Curry heaven

This experience reminded me of one of my friend’s remark that in Thailand, much attention has been paid to worldly pleasures from some of the best foods and drinks to excellent massages (including one involving small fish!).

 

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Fish massage

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Animals in Chiang Mai zoo

The closest mountain range to Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep Pui National Park. Rather than a tranquil sanctuary, the park is home to many sights including the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai, a couple of hill tribe villages, the Chiagn Mai zoo and many other attractions. I spend half a day exploring the zoo and a few hours at the temple. The animals in the zoo were quite fun to see (even despite their lethargic state given the humidity and heat!). A fun activity in the park involved paying a small fee to feed a variety of animals from emus and elephants to tigers and lions!

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Ska band Chiang Mai

One night I decided to check out the nightlife scene in Chiang Mai. Sitting on a patio in a backpacker bar, I met two unlikely friends, a truck driver from Australia and an insurance broker from San Francisco. We were soon joined by a firefighter from Korea and a big group of German travelers. Together, we checked out a surprisingly awesome jazz joint called, the North Gate Jazz Club, a cheesy outdoor dance floor called, Zoe in Yellow, a really nice live ska bar (that I don’t know the name of), and finally a slightly sketchy after-hours spot called, Spicy. This last place was closed down at 1:30 am, which left many a party goers in despair. But that’s a half-hour past the official close time. Anyways, I didn’t go out much on this trip and seeing the several venues in one night was kind of a treat! The next day, I grabbed a Thai omelette from a family restaurant and followed it by a special treat: the most delicious mango rice plate ever! Time to say goodbye to Thailand!

 

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Yummy mango rice!

Singapore

The multicultural city-state of Singapore provided me with a gentle entrance into Asia. Arriving at 5 am at the Changi International Airport, I took the efficient and clean metro train into town and walked into the financial heart of the city (which reminded me of Shanghai and Vancouver). A mix of well-dressed Asian, Indian and European people were walking to work with coffees, teas and other multicolored drinks in their hands.

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Marina Bay

After dropping off my luggage at a hostel on the waterfront, I went for a long walk around town. I changed some money in a small center full of money changers, called Change Alley, grabbed a strong traditional coffee mixed with concentrated milk and started walking to Chinatown.

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Singapore Chinatown

As it turned out, this was the first of many Chinatowns and Little Indias that I visited during my trip in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. I find it interesting (and humbling) that these neighborhoods in South East Asia have been around much longer than our modern notions of globalization and multiculturalism became such fads.

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Mosque in Singapore

It was great to see Taoist and Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Hindu temples sit next to each other. I visited an interesting temple, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, that houses (you guessed it!) one of Buddha’s teeth in a golden shrine. The temple also had a number of very detailed wax models of senior monks in meditation poses.

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Wax model of meditation master

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Buddha Statue in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Walking around Singapore, one runs into amazing buildings that are often combined with or inspired by themes from nature. Famous examples include the durian-shaped Esplanade, and, of course, the stunning Gardens by the Bay.

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Gardens by the Bay, Night and Day

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Durian-Shaped Esplanade Building

Other amazing buildings include the Marina Sands Resort that looks like a building with a ship on top (a tribute to Noah?!) and the Park Royal hotel.

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Park Royal Hotel

Other fun things to spot around town are tasteful uses of color in normal buildings:

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Colorful building

… and sculptures by some surprisingly famous people including, Dali and Botero!

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Dali and Botero sculptures

In Singapore, I visited several excellent museums and galleries. My favorite was the National Gallery of Singapore that is housed in the former Supreme Court Building and the City Hall. The site has historical significance, as it is the place where Japan surrendered to the Allies during WWII. The art in this museum was exquisite and ranged from meditations on nature by Chinese master Wu Guanzhong to refreshingly political and social art by a range of artists from Southeast Asia.

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Painting by Wu Guanzhong

Other interesting museums that I visited included, the Asian Civilizations Museum, with treasures from different corners of Asia (including Iran); and, the National Museum, which provides a nice overview of Singapore’s history (including a fascinating and dark account of its occupation by Japan during WWII). One of the things that I saw a lot of in Singapore was an interesting use of digital media including projection mapping around town, including at the i Light Marina Bay festival on the waterfront and in the National Museum.

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Projection Mapping at the National Museum

The most fascinating modern art piece I saw, however, was at the Changi International Airport: an amazing kinetic sculpture, called Kinetic Rain, by the German design firm ART+COM. I had heard about this work at the Design & Emotion Conference in Bogota before, but seeing it first hand was amazing.

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Kinetic Rain

I was pretty jet-lagged during most of my stay in Singapore, so I would get sleepy pretty early and also get up early. On one of these early mornings, I took a bus to the famous Singapore Zoo. Despite the heat and humidity, it was a fascinating trip and I saw some stunning animals. Some highlights was a crazy busy baboon colony (with some very naughty monkeys!); a man performing energy healing on an orangutan; a fascinating animal called Malayan Tapir, whose upper lip and nose are connected (!), and, finally, the Proboscis Monkey, a monkey with a stunningly large nose and bloated belly full of enzymes and bacteria that might explode if the monkey eats too much sugary fruits!

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Energy-Healing with Orangutan

The food in Singapore is fascinating and is a festival of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai and Singaporean tastes. I particularly enjoyed visiting traditional food courts, called Hawker centers, where you can try a variety of dishes from local family-run stalls for reasonable prices. Some amazing foods I tried were a spicy laksa soup, a magnificent fish head curry and a stunning chili crab!

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Fish head curry

This last dish was so deliciously hot that it almost destroyed my tongue and I could not feel it for about half an hour. Needless to say, I still highly recommend it!

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Chili Crab

Singapore has long been a trade center in Asia and a meeting place between West and East and this spirit still pervades. I walked through the financial section that funds the city many times and was reminded that the city’s heartbeat revolves around finance and commerce. A lot of the stunning buildings, beautiful light shows and fashionable events felt like pats on the back for the success of the city-state and its residents as a whole. Also, a pat for surviving in the most expensive city in the world!

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Am I being watched?

At the end of my stay, I had mixed feelings about Singapore: while it was easy to travel there (e.g., I imagine it’s an excellent place to travel with children), and it has good culinary, cultural and artistic offerings, I found it over-organized and a bit stifling. I had a feeling I was constantly being watched (the many security cameras did not help) and needed to behave. Despite the diversity, there seemed to be a clear path of “success” to be followed. I was ready to move to a more wild and open space. A feeling that was perfectly rewarded by my next stop: Thailand!

Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs

In the last few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to travel much to visit and work in many of the most interesting places in the world including Spain, Bhutan, Mexico and Kenya. Today, I want to list a few things about a very special place that I have written little about here before: Toronto. I emigrated with my family to this cold but friendly city more than 15 years ago. Ever since moving to this adopted home, I’ve always felt good coming back from travels and trips both short and long. So in the manner of lists about everything that are popping all over the place and for no particular reason, here are my Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs: (Warning! This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)

1. Tea Heaven

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Yes, I know this is a surprise but I believe tea is king in Toronto! China and India might be the places most associated with ancient tea drinking traditions, Kenya and Sri Lanka might be some of the largest producers of tea, Japan and England might have woven the most etiquette and ritual around tea, and, my native Iranians might have chosen it as their national drink, but it is Toronto, my friends, that in my mind owns the title of Tea Heaven. Wondering why? I challenge you to find more variety of teas anywhere in the world! While different places focus on a few special types of tea (for example, the super sweet and milky Chai of India and the small and strong red tea of Turkey), it is extremely hard to find all of these in one city in the world. In Toronto, you can find authentic Persian tea, Indian tea, Chinese tea and even a Japanese tea ceremony master! In addition to these, there are many many independent teahouses with different atmospheres all over town. My buddy Hamed’s Samadhi Teahouse in Kensington is a hub for art and spirituality events, while other places, such as Bambot, focus on board games. Because of Toronto’s cultural diversity ,many of the big franchises – Starbucks, Second Cup and the tea-dedicated David’s Tea – have a lot of teas on offer, something that is hard to find abroad.

In my recent travels, especially in Western Europe, I loved the coffee (and sorry to say, I’m not at all impressed by Toronto’s coffee scene, except maybe the Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown Parliament), but missed the tea. And now, a big reveal: in the cold winter days, when the sun shines through the frozen sky, I long for a big cup of Tim Horton’s green or Earl Grey tea! I know, this comment kicks my reputation as a tea enthusiast and I do agree the coffee at Timmy’s kind of sucks but the teas are surprisingly good (and are of the people with affordable, no frills prices)!

2. Public Library Champ

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For a few years after I moved to Toronto, I was completely obsessed with the public libraries: their open spaces, seemingly unending cultural resources (especially the movie and music sections), and great services, made me swoon with joy every time I walked through their colourful bookshelves. Over the years, this passion has turned into a kind of mature and settled love, where I still long for them but am not desperate to spend as much time as possible with them. Yes, my love of public libraries is old but the memories are still fresh: the first time I searched the Internet, the first time I opened a New York Times Review of Books Magazine, the first time I checked out 20 world music CDs: they all happened here!

In addition to being culture meccas and democratic spaces where the patrons don’t have to buy over-priced coffee, be hipsters looking for degrees, or even shower, to enjoy the free Internet, space and heat, libraries in Toronto offer great services such as free museum passes (in the last year, I’ve visited 5 good Toronto museums with these gifts) and great public and often free speeches: I’ve seen Wade Davis talk about his Into the Silence book and Thomas King share short funny-sad stories from his An Inconvenient Indian there. In short, if you live in Toronto, the public libraries are some of the hippest, awesomest, coolest places to be! And some of them are even in historical buildings and have great collections to check out (for example, the Osborne’s Collection of Early Childhood books). Check them out!

3. Movie Mecca

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Toronto is a movie mecca: it hosts two important international festivals (The Toronto International Film Festival and The Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival), more and more films are being filmed here, and there are important movie interest hubs all over town. In the last few years, I have seen Werner Herzog and Slavoj Zizek give talks on their films here. The Zizek talk was fantastic, you can watch it here. Among the institutions peppered around town are Queen Video (legendary video rental store), Suspect Video (strange horror and erotic sections) and Bloor Cinema (docs and late night replays). Sorry to say the National Film Board of Canada Mediatheque closed down recently. To end this on a fun note, Toronto also has its own very weird underground cinema, Cineforum, with some of the most fringe selections I’ve seen!

4. Food Funhouse

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Fusion is, or can be, confusion! But in Toronto, mostly its awesome. Again, another thing that struck me when I arrived here with my extremely unexperienced palate was to see the diversity of the culinary arts available to explore here. 3 Chinatowns, 2 Little Indias (that I know of) and a very large number of Japanese, Greek, Persian, Thai, Mexican, American, French and … restaurants to choose from. You can be authentic and go to the suburbs to try ethnic food without hearing much English or knowing exactly what you are eating (check out this blog for hints) or be cosmopolitan and try unusual fusions such as Thai and Hungarian or Korean and Mexican!

5. Multicultural Kaleidoscope   

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There is a lot of cultural diversity in Toronto and even if you don’t find the best of something, then at least you have leads to where you can find the best! This is best reflected in the music and art scene, as well as, the diverse neighbourhoods. A great place to start is to check out the international festivals from Harbourfront Centre’s summer festivals – they have featured Orchestra Baobab and Balkan Beat Box in explosive free concerts before- to Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and events such as the Luminato Festival and International Festival of Authors. Small World Music is an independent world music promoter with nice events in the GTA and NXNE brings alternative rock bands to stages large and small around town.

For more underground tastes, there are also a lot of places that are more niche and off the beaten track, two places with very different approaches are Beit Zatoun (an activist hub) and Good for Her (for gender and sex activists). If you have any interest in classical music, there is a ton of free and very affordable events happening in Toronto. A great place to find them is here. One of my favourite venues especially for chamber music and piano recitals is Music Toronto events. Finally, if you are into performance and digital media art, there is much possibility here. The annual Nuit Blanche is a place to start (although I have to say, I’m not a huge fan because of many reasons) but there are also regular programs of cutting edge artists from Marina Abramovic to Ai Weiwei to Robert Lepage.

Looking into Haiti’s eyes

A few days before the new year’s eve, I received an email from my good friend Sahand, an independent documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Toronto, that his feature documentary, Haiti: Children of Heaven, is released online and is available for public viewing. Ever since Sahand first told me about this project a few years ago and showed me some preliminary footage and photographs of the children on the island, I’ve been waiting for this time when his work is available publicly. Haiti: Children of Heaven is what I would call a “lyrical documentary”. Reminiscent of Peter Mettler and Werner Herzog, fact and poetry weave together in Sahand’s vision. Informative and sometimes strikingly heartfelt interviews are followed by beautiful images of children and the landscape to great effect. Sahand wants to capture the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake on the island’s inhabitants. And the movie does that (and much more) well. Over the course of an hour, Sahand shares beautiful and heartbreaking stories of people he has met and interviewed over a year and the waves of desperation and hope that have been washing over the Haitian masses like the waves that wash the Caribbean seashore. The list of Haiti’s catastrophes is long: the 2010 earthquake, the Cholera outbreak, the post-election violence, the horrendous dictatorship of Papa Doc before that, and many other catastrophes that have haunted the island since the time when the indigenous populations were massacred and slaves were brought by European colonists a few hundred years ago.

Sahand first went to the island when his dentist invited him to join her on a short trip to a school there where she was going to do volunteer dental work on the children. When he arrived, he fell in love with the children who followed him everywhere. The lively and cheerful children at the school loved him and his gentle playfulness, his unending energy and his love that could see beyond their poverty, their misery, and the sad narrative at the root of the learned helplessness present in many of the people of the island. He started teaching them a little Yoga and English and showed them how to take photographs. He was smitten by their innocence and open-heartedness. During his stay there, Sahand met and gained the trust of many people, from teachers working at the school to local entrepreneurs and artists. You see many of them in his movie, talking openly about their dreams and frustrations: vulnerable yet dignified. And indeed this is the magic of Sahand’s work: like some of the best filmmakers of our time (e.g., Michael Glawogger and Hubert Sauper), he respects his subjects which in turn allows them to share with him and, therefore, with us, his audience, an intimate side of themselves that would be impossible for us to see otherwise. This is most successful with the children whose often silent and wordless presence in the movie is so expressive, so innocent, and so hard to watch, because we know that they face unimaginable dangers growing up in one of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in the world. For months after he came back, Sahand talked about the Haitian children’s beautiful eyes. Having worked with children in challenging contexts, I feel I understand the dilemma he felt (and feels) as an artist visiting Haiti and experiencing its pain and beauty and witnessing the contradiction between the charm of the island and its inhabitants and the ugly challenges they face on a daily basis. And what better symbol than the children’s eyes that simultaneously express their innocence and take in the harsh images in front of them?

Sahand’s most intriguing stories come from Cite Soleil, an impoverished and dangerous slum that even UN forces and NGOs are afraid to go into. Sahand had spent time there, meeting many people and getting them to share their stories on camera. You can meet some of these people and hear their voices in the movie. Cite Soleil’s gangs and desperadoes are infamous (e.g., see the dubious documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil) but there are also many artists who live and work there. Sahand told me of an improve cirques and comedy due whose bitter humour chills your bones and is rooted in the every day experiences of the camp inhabitants; he told me of a sculptor who uses human bones to create sculptures that sell for thousands of euros in France; and he told me of Chelo, a hip hop artist who has lost many members of his family in the earthquake and walks around rhyming and singing songs of suffering and hope and silently refusing to record any of it, for the pain is too much to make a plan for the future. Sahand’s film is accompanied by Pouya Hamidi‘s haunting and whimsical soundtrack. His eclectic and minimal sound accompany the images, effectively helping us connect on an emotional level to what we see on the screen. Pouya told me an interesting story about the soundtrack: when he started working on the score, he was living in Montreal and by chance found a Haitian-born singer there, Athesia, who after seeing clips of the film, agreed to sing on the soundtrack.

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Sahand in Haiti

For a few days in the April of 2012, I had the privilege and honour to visit Sahand in Port-au-Prince. I was interested to see the island and meet the people first hand and experience the stories behind the camera but most importantly I wanted to spend time with Sahand. I arrived in Port au Prince on a small plane from Miami that carried an eclectic collection of missionaries, businessmen and military personal. I was curious to see who will sit beside me. As it turned out, a strong, large man in a suit sat next to me who turned out to be a bodyguard of the Mexican president who was going to visit Haiti in a few days. He also turned out to be a very jovial person and prone to intense laughter at my jokes and stories. He invited me to a private party that I did not go to but still wonder what it would have looked like! When I arrived at the airport, it was wonderful to see Sahand, who with his braided hair and confident smile, looked at home in the chaos surrounding the airport. He soon got us into the back of a truck and we were on our way to Wharf Jermie, a district in Port au Prince where he was staying at a school and working with children. At the school, Sahand introduced me to the open-hearted and playful children. Spending time with Sahand, meeting the children and some of Sahand’s friends, especially a boxer and teacher who was trying to set up a gym in Wharf Jermie for children, were the highlights of my trip.

Over the next few days, Sahand and I explored Port-au-Prince, which years after the earthquake still looked like Apocalypse Now. We visited the downtown area where broken buildings, homeless people and huge rats competed for our attention; we visited the iron market where you could buy voodoo tools, unusual musical instruments and handicrafts; we visited energetic gospel church services that were more like concerts; and we got caught in torrential rain. Lack of street lights and maintained road in Haiti can turn rain into a mighty problem for the traveller there. Once we got caught in rain that filled up the streets, turning into a small flood, and seeming to want to wash everything into the sea. I remember trying to get from one shelter from another dark street and falling into a hole in the middle of the street that was almost as deep as my height. Fortunately, Sahand held my hand and pulled me out of the hole and I got away with minor bruises on my foot. By instinct, I had put my passport and money in a dry plastic bag a few seconds before this episode!

After a few days in Port au Prince, Sahand and I went for a multiple day hiking trip across the mountains to Jacmel, a small port town on the Southern coast. I remember this trip fondly, as we swapped stories from our similar experiences growing up in Iran and shared meals, drinks and laughter. Seeing the mountains of Haiti was refreshing. In the villages, we got to talk to local people who were not as affected by the disasters of the capital. Poverty was still prevalent but somehow seemed less devastating. Jacmel is a beautiful town which is known as the art capital of Haiti with many artists and musicians. We met some of these people randomly, a man making paper mache sculpture on the beach, another painting colourful pictures, and some people practicing music. After relaxing for a few days and having some fresh seafood we head back to Port-au-Prince. One evening during our walk from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, as the day was drawing to a close, we realized we were still a few miles from the next village and decided to try to find a place to spend the night on the way. As the days was darkening and the only flickering light around us were fireflies (“Coucouy” in Creole), we saw a peasant home in the distance. We reached the door just in time to avoid the first drops of rain that were starting to fall from the sky. After some questions, the family opened the door for us and allowed us to spend the night in their storage room for some money. The typically large family consisted of a man, a couple of young women, a grandma and an army of children of all sizes and shapes who sat on the floor of the small house, looking at the two bearded, tired and dusty men who had appeared out of nowhere at their door. The lady of the house (or the main lady of the house) asked us in a loud rural voice, suited to conversations across large fields, whether we wanted dinner and breakfast. For dinner, we were offered a big cluster of bananas and for breakfast heaping bowls of rice. The storage room was small and windowless but more than enough to rest our weary bodies in the night. As the rain subsided and Sahand and I lay on the makeshift bed and listened to the sounds of the night. The delicate sounds of the countryside – crickets, water drops, wind – were periodically interrupted by a loud donkey bray. Each time we heard the sound, we could not avoid laughing out loud. Tired from the walk and teary-eyed from laughter, I went to sleep in this middle of nowhere. In the morning, we woke to the sound of a hissing radio playing gospel songs (“70% static, 30% song!”). During our breakfast, the whole family was again present with children looking with open-mouthed fascination at us. As we were preparing to hit the road again, the lady of the house, who had seen us play with the youngest child, a boy of about 2, asked us to take hime with us! Shocked, we refused, telling her this child should stay with her mama. We walked on the road again and into the mountains once again baffled and mystified by the contradictions of this land. Watch Sahand’s film: “Haiti: Children of Heaven” by following this link.

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Resting on the mountains on the hike between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel

Cadiz

On the edge of Europe, Cadiz is famous for looking much like Havana and this is not surprising given its history as a seafaring centre from which many ships sailed to the Americas over the years. Cadiz is as old as Europe, some say the oldest city in this ancient continent, with Phoenicians, Roman, Muslim and Christian roots going back for centuries. And it is still a beautiful, vibrant city with a fish market to die for and atmospheric alleys, cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as, museums and concert halls. One of Spain’s most famous composers Manuel de Falla is from here and the city is known as the site of the yearly carnival where laughter and music mingle on the streets. 20141221_123457When we visited, at the end of December, the weather was chilly but fresh and pregnant with sea breeze. Our modest hotel was near the famed Cathedral and around the corner from the Gypsy area and an atmospheric ancient sherry bar full of wooden barrels and old men. The best part of a first visit to Cadiz is getting lost in the atmospheric streets and putting your head in small local bakeries, restaurants and shops to try the local fare and talk to the friendly folk. The Cadiz Museum is also nice to visit with classic and modern art and archaeological pieces that somehow help put things in perspective.     20141221_135934      But the best history is the living one: the mix of faces you see on the street, reflecting the complex line of men and women who have choose this place as home, the tradition you taste when you try the local cheese and olives and the laughter and joyful talk you hear when you walk into a random bar on a Sunday afternoon where there is a large communal paella is placed on the counter where you can buy a small, tapa portion and eat knowing for a day you are part of a large family of all the people who have passed through here. And walking beside the harbour, looking at the men with fishing rods in the water, you know that they stand where many stood over time.

20141220_132651So for a few days in December, we laugh and talk and are silent and dream, in these streets and under this sky, oblivious and yet knowing that Cadiz will be here much longer after we are gone.20141220_113429