Travel

Patterning

Some pictures from our 2009 trip to France.

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Claude shivers in a surprise snowstorm. We had to rush to get all the nets up because if the olives freeze then their oil is ruinedish.

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Philippe examines a rifle, one of the pillars of his spiritual life on Corsica. For a goatherd and cheese maker, he and his family live very comfortably.

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The neighbor watches the belts that roll the immense stone that crushes olives in the ancient stone mill. The gears used to be turned by water from a diverted stream, but they are now run by motor.

I was editing photos last night in preparation for a project and noticed the similarities among these three.

My 10 most memorable travel moments

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Heroes.

by Mike

I’m volunteering in Haiti with an NGO that’s rebuilding schools. My job is to take photos that make heroes look like heroes. I think that’s pretty cool.

In southwest France, the father of an off-the-grid family taught us about medicinal herbs in his garden. We farmed with his family.

Among enormous sand dunes we danced samba in a shack in Brazil while it poured rain. The rain was warm.

In Paris we bought a scooter and took backroads to the tip of Corsica.

A fisherman in Uruguay sold us shrimp from his boat. In our rented, beachfront house we cooked them with garlic and butter and ate them listening to the sea.

The Burmese monk who lead the revolts against his government sat in front of us and meditated. It was an unexpected private meeting in Rangoon. When he finished he gave us oranges as gifts.

From a town in Laos that had no electricity, I remember the lights: stars like sugar spilled on a table, fireflies dancing in the jungle and candles on the tables where people sat and gossiped.

In Nice, the olive oil on our table never traveled in a vehicle. We gathered the olives, carried them to the mill, bottled the oil and ate it on bread.

Within months, in Bali, Hawaii and France, we talked to three different 90-year-olds who each told us their stories about WWII.

The tsunami hit the Indian town I was visiting, and I survived.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Carry Water

by Mike

When a place is new sometimes it’s so overwhelming that I don’t quite know what to take a picture of, so I take pictures of the biggest things around – buildings – to represent all that’s different about a place. I certainly noticed the buildings when I first arrived here – the shacks and crumbled homes – but as the weeks have passed it has become less shocking, more normal. The buildings are still representative, but there is poverty in symbolism – in fact buildings are vessels that carry lives, the relevant content of a place, and the lives go on whether the buildings are standing or fallen. One can’t look at a broken building and have any clue as to the character of the people within. All I can know is that a broken house or school is probably making daily life more complicated.

I’m thankful that after a couple weeks of being here the broken buildings are becoming more normal to me because it allows me to see past them and to the stories of this place – the good, the bad, the complex stories that make Haiti so incredibly uplifting and heart-wrenching in the exact same moment.

And I’m glad we’re doing something to fix those buildings.

I hope when you watch this video of David you can see the complexity unfolding around him. He’s carrying water to mix into the concrete that will go into the wall of a new school.

Mosquito Nets

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by Mike

These photos are from an old hotel that was operating as an art gallery and cafe or something. We drove in rural areas this morning and since it was Sunday people were dressed up in their Sunday finest for church. There’s definitely a colonial style to the clothing, to the buildings as well, and when I saw things like a dapper man with a cane, the effect of his bare feet was that I imagined we were driving through Southern plantations in the early 1800s.
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Men drive by a model home in Leogane

by Mike

Here are more photos from the walk around town today.

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Sign Painter

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by Mike

We went for a walk around the town today, we actually saw most of it in about an hour. The man above was designing a sign for a studio that he’ll paint directly onto the wall of the building. He was stenciling it very exactly with a pencil and ruler, I’m excited to go back and see what he finally did with it.

Roosters

by Mike

This morning it sounded like a rooster war. You could hear them close and far, hundreds at a time, probably. It must have started around 5am or so. There weren’t any other sounds at that time, so sleeping outside with the clear sky and the trees and hills it made me wonder if this was what it was like in chicken-rich tropical places in times before electricity.

Conversations starters

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by Mike

Here are some questions you might ask locals to get them talking:

Have things changed much here since you were a kid?

When you’re not here, what do you miss about your home?

What did your mother/father do for a living?

What do you like about your work?

If you ask straight up personal questions then sometimes people get suspicious (or the opposite – they just talk about themselves non-stop). The idea is to get them talking about something for which they have passion or an opinion, to find the intersection between the person and the culture.

Problem solving to Tudia

by Mike

I stepped off the train from Caltanisseta and realized I’d have to act fast: the train station was shuttered and there were no payphones and all the other passengers were getting in their cars to go. The bus left. I walked toward a car full of old ladies, including a nun.

“Hai telephono?” I wasn’t sure if the noun was correct, but how could it not be? They didn’t seem to understand me, and drove off.

One more car, and apparently she wasn’t going in my direction, so she left too.

I was alone in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know where I was going. For the first time since I can remember, I really, honestly didn’t know what to do. So I started walking.
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Secure in Caltanissetta

Caltanissetta Dome
Caltanissetta’s duomo.

by Mike
I was delirious from jet lag as I thought it, but I definitely thought it: “I wonder if these people are my guardian angels.”

Imagine:
Sitting on a bus in a place you’ve never been.
It’s dark and it’s raining hard.
Ten Sicilian men sit on the bus who don’t understand you and you don’t understand them.
You’re going to a town you weren’t planning to go.
You’re not even sure if it’s the right bus or which cardinal direction it’s heading.
You don’t have a place to sleep lined up for that night because plans changed unexpectedly.

From home this is, like, terrifying to a lot of people. Even to me, from home, I’m anxious about this kind of situation. But when I was actually physically there I could trust each person because I could see each face was the fingerprint of a life. There’s really no way to intellectualize it – you just trust people more when you can see them. They become complex, and that allows good personality traits to enter the imagination. People, I believe, are basically good, but from home it’s easy to collapse others into a stereotype, like “mafia” or “terrorist.”

Recognizing I was foreign, the men on the bus were concerned for me. They tried to get me to my train transfer in time, but en route they called and found out the last train had already left. So they called and reserved a room for me at a bed and breakfast near the Caltanissetta train station so that the next morning I could take the first train to Villalba. Oh, and they wouldn’t let me pay for the bus. ”

The proprietor at the bed and breakfast noticed my birthdate: “My son was born on September 29th as well.”
“Really!”
“And you know what?” he continued, “September 29th is Saint Michael’s Day.”
“My name is Michael!” I said.
“Yes, and St. Michael is the patron saint of Caltanissetta!”
“Whoa.” That’s some serious Lost shit. Almost enough to convert me to Catholicism.

In the book I’m reading, “Gilead” by the brilliant Marilyne Robinson, the narrator writes about his practically-perfect grandfather, “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice… Whatever we might say for ourselves, for our reasonableness and our good intentions, we knew they were trivial by his lights, and that made them a little bit trivial by our lights.”

That’s an important result of travel and spirituality – narrowing the gap between what you are and what you want to be. I know I still unintentionally collapse people into stereotypes, but I also know the best way to combat this is to test my beliefs and prove I was wrong.

The Presentation of Haiti

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My view of Claude’s story.

by Mike

I’ve been reading up on how Haiti is presented in the media, and I thought I’d share some links about Haiti and storytelling.

This guy is a photojournalist who’s extremely sensitive to the power dynamics of storytelling:
“Please help me, who is not in Haiti, understand what is really going on. Please do not produce work that is a substitute for the beggar’s bowl. Please don’t demean me, the Haitians or yourself. Please let me hear and see an Haitian.”
He’s highly critical of his profession, and I find all his writing inspired.
To Hear or See an Haitian Once the Party Has Died Down at The Spinning Head

An article by Rebecca Solnit about the wording and emphasis of media coverage:
In Haiti, Words Can Kill

Eliza Gregory writes about being a white photographer objectifying non-white people:
Looking Back at a Picture I Wish I Hadn’t Taken

And finally, in a video from TED, Chimamanda Adichie talks about our tendency to reduce a group to a single story, and the problems that arise out of that act. Before seeing this video, I used to say that the most important thing I have learned from travel is that “Everyone has a story.” Now I realize that I got it a little wrong in a big way. It should read, “Everyone has stories.” The change is more than just pluralization, it’s the realization of multi-dimensionality, complexity.

My goal, going to Haiti, is to avoid taking pictures in a way that I deny the subjects their agency. This wouldn’t even be an issue (or a blog post) if I didn’t recognize in myself a tendency to do the opposite as a result of the media’s story arcs in my own thought patterns.

Before there were markets

More dog

The girls hopped from rock to rock with their skirts brushing the bushes. They sang high-pitched hymns that reached us in the wind, voices fragile like glass, clear and pure as the hill’s high air. From here we could see the Mediterranean to our right and the Pyrenees to the left.

Gabriel knelt.

“This is rocayrol.” The frizzy little lettuce grows in the cracks in high places. He slid his knifeblade into the rock and sliced the rocayrol at its root, tossed it in his basket then searched for another. Gabriel wears a leather necklace with a stamp-sized image of the Virgin Mary on one side and Jesus on the other, and it dangled outside his shirt.

“That’s asparagus,” he said, pointing to a fern leaning into the path. I’d never seen wild asparagus. “That’s fennel. And over there, that’s lemon balm. A tea of lemon balm, rosemary and mint gives men strength in the morning.”

We were collecting dinner salad for 13 people – the parents, nine kids and us two guests. Though they live on a farm in the valley, they collect much of their food from the surrounding hills. “God is generous,” the father said. And while neither of us is religious, as travelers our job is to listen to understand. And we understood.

“Rocayrol has the most wonderful taste,” he said. “It loves high rocks in the sun.” So we climbed high to find it, and as we collected it we listened to the girls’ crystalline hymns.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

Wade Davis on the meaning of my tattoo

by Mike

Ethnologist Wade Davis is National Geographic’s Explorer-in-Residence, if there can even be such a thing. In the videos below he talks about ethnospheric (like biosphere, except made up of cultures) diversity. He is the author of one of my all-time favorite quotes: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

The following speeches unpack that idea.

Expaand

Love has a recipe

Stirring, Corsica, France

by Mike

Azure fell in love with a Corsican cheese, a cheese that doesn’t travel well. We were leaving in a couple days and she might never again see or taste the enchanting, goaty brocciu. Azure was sad, so I had to do something.

We asked a young man at the market if he knew a brocciu maker who might teach us to make the cheese. He told us to ask the widows who sit on the steps of the mayor’s office.

We rode our scooter to the mayor’s office and asked the old ladies where to find a brocciu maker. In the next village over, they said, lived a woman who made it for years.

We rode our scooter over the ridge and asked a man where Mme Albertini lived. She was his aunt, in fact, and she lived at the edge of town.

We found the woman, but she no longer made cheese – the process is too intense. Her cousin in the next village over, though, still made it.

We found the village and found his barn and Philippe was inside, milking the goats.

“Please,” we said, “Azure loves brocciu and needs to learn to make it herself.”

He looked at her and smiled: if we returned the next afternoon he would happily teach us everything. The next day, alongside his wife and daughter, he patiently taught us the generations-old recipe.

All we had to do was ask.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.

What should you do when you have too much fruit?

You should build a new tree.

Heh, I made up a proverb.

Describe the Clouds is a new blog I’m keeping for all the travel-related stuff I want to share that isn’t a result of our own travels. It’ll feature pieces that convey a strong sense of place – the majority will be links to other people’s blogs and what not, but there will also be media and some personal stuff cross-posted from Quarter Year.

Please head over there and check it out!