Textile monochrome

Black and white photography captures the imagination. It distills a picture into shades of grey, into shadows and reflections. I often convert my favorite photos into black and white, to extract the essence and enjoy the underlying contrasts and colors in their most simplified form: shades of lightness and darkness.

I mentioned how much I love scarves in an earlier post, and here I integrate my love of the scarf and textiles, with 5 reasons why I also love monochrome:

1. Black and white is timeless

Our culture sees black and white as speaking of the past. It has connotations of history, of all things vintage, of reaching into a long lost memory. Somehow, black and white now makes a photo look ageless and timeless. That is a great quality.  And if you like history, black and white makes a photo even more beautiful because every moment in the present will someday be part of someone’s story and history.

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Paisley Mountain

2. Contrast heightens impact

My favorite shots are often those with some contrast to highlight or heighten either an emotive response, or an aesthetically satisfying combination. The contrast of light and dark , shadow and brightness, is the ultimate. It makes an impact on the eye and the response to an image.

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Scarf overload

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Tassels in the middle

3. Color matching no longer matters

Not every color looks good together! Not every combination works. But when distilled into light and dark rather than colorful hues, then it no longer matters!

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Overlap

4. Composition is key

Related to matching colors; when we remove the element of color from the equation, the satisfaction we feel when we look at an image also becomes all about the composition. The movement. The placement. I love the below photo of a patterned silk scarf because the placement almost made it look like a wave. The curves and curling motion of the fabric reminded me of a whirlpool. Never mind that the scarf itself was super colorful, with purple, red, white and yellow – the placement and overlapping folds made it fun to look at even in b&w.

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Charybdis, the textile whirlpool

5. Focus on texture

Just as composition becomes more important when a photo is stripped bare into monotone, so too the texture of the photo becomes valuable. Here texture is so visible because we are talking about fabric, textiles. But even with a landscape, or a portrait, the texture of the land or nature, or a face and skin, becomes heightened and a central part of the photo. I love that the creation and construction of the materials in the photo become more evident. Just look at the thin threads that you can see so much more clearly in the righthand scarf below…so beautifully textured!

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Floral interruption

M xx

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#toystory

I grew up loving a stuffed toy elephant and lion. Together,  they were Ellie and Leo. Very original, I know.  They were a set of stuffed small bean-bag style toys. The best of friends among themselves, propped up on my bed. They were adorable (if I don’t say so myself). They travelled the world with me and like for any child, they were a comforting, constant presence.

Leo’s mane had been whittled into a thin wisened, wizardly beard, almost dreadlock-like from overuse: too much stroking, not enough washing hehe. Don’t laugh. I had them well into my late teens (…if not into my early 20s!). I’m sure many people share this trait, they just don’t admit to it. As I grow older, I actually get more comfortable with admitting the desire to hold onto being a child at heart. These toys were a window into my childhood.

I was genuinely excited to go to Africa earlier this year, to discover Ellie and Leo’s ancestors. No joke. Lions and elephants were both  spectacular in the flesh!! I think Leo had always been my secret favorite (even though I know we’re not supposed to have favorites)…but the surprise of the trip was most definitely having fallen in love with elephants.  Elephants exhibit a depth of emotional intelligence and humanity to them that was almost palpable.  Lions do still have some the most interesting behavior of all the cats, and of many of the animals in general.  You can watch them for hours: they have interesting social behaviors and are often more active than many other animals.  It can also take FOREVER to find them!  We were lucky enough to find a few lionesses on the hunt in Kruger National Park and it was one of the most incredible experiences to watch them running between and around the cars on safari, using the road to track their kill and the cars like boulders, oblivious to us bystander!!

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Sniffing something out

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Too close for comfort?

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Leo’s mother on the move

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I can’t help myself – an occasional black and white monotone photo I think often adds great character and intensity to already beautiful animal portraits. The harsh sunlight and shadows from the trees in the South African landscape made for some beautiful, playful darkened lines and patches on these lionesses, deep in concentration.

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Deep in contemplation (…maybe the next meal?)

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Stealth beneath the bushes

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The intensity of a lioness

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A young male hiding beneath the thicket

Elephants tend to be a little easier to catch – size sometimes matters.

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Ellie’s grandfather caught hiding behind the trees

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Cousins in the reeds

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I’m watching you!

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Don’t be shy!

Ellie and Leo were eventually joined by another long-eared and flopsy mopsy rabbit (read Beatrix Potter if you don’t know this reference!), with a triangle-like body, that I named Isosceles: a great descriptive name!  I left Ellie, Leo and Isosceles in Australia…New York winters were a little too harsh for them! More recently though, in the concrete jungle, the metropolis of New York – I was gifted a somewhat ironic addition. A small donkey! Ruben, or ‘Rubi’ for short. Watch this space 🙂 #anothertoystory

A warm and fuzzy story always helps start the week on the right note. Happy Sunday.  Good luck for Monday!

M xx

Knockout

I have a very animated way of talking which involves waving my hands around a lot. Not a big surprise if you take into account my Italian background. Then add in a pinch of enthusiasm, a hint of energy and a  drop of flamboyant personality…and you have a recipe for knocking over many glasses of water! Yes, I have spilled a lot of water in kitchens and at restaurant tables in my adult years, not to mention my childhood ones.  Recently, I managed to knock over a series of full glasses of water in fancy New York establishments onto the lap of my great friend MC. In both cases I had barely touched my glass of wine, so I really had no excuse other than my own over enthusiasm and excessive gesticulations to blame! Thank you MC for being so patient with my water spills!

Water glasses are not the only casualty from this intensity in communication style – I have (accidentally) knocked people in the face with my elbows on the dance floor (to the chagrin of their boyfriends nearby!) and practically and unintentionally tripped myself over, rifled phones to the floor and ruffled many feathers.

The unintentional “knockout” moment. It is amazing what you discover when it happens. Some people laugh as you collect yourself and clear the spillage. Some people respond as if distressed by the invasion of their peace and personal space. Some people start up a conversation in the wake of the damage, as if you broke the ice and opened yourself up to a fresh, genuine interaction. It is impossible to be inauthentic in that (embarrassing) moment! Caught off guard by your own imperfection and unconstrained passion for the topic of the day.

That “knockout” moment is not always bad. In fact – in the creative process, it most often manifests itself as a moment of inspiration, of  eye-opening wonder. When you suddenly seize the moment, filled with a sense of vision. It happens in writing, it happens in art, it happens when you get that perfect shot, without trying. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does – it’s great. I find travel often wields these artistic “knockout” moments, more than normal life. Maybe it’s because our hearts are more open to them. We are more relaxed, more liberated. Maybe it’s because what we see is somehow new and makes us feel renewed, novel and different. Bill Bryson put it beautifully:

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.

– Bill Bryson

I share a couple of “knockout” visions. They are by no means the best photos ever taken at all, but I can remember feeling a sense of satisfaction when I took them. A random selection to inspire over the weekend.

1. Composition

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The art of gelato: it was too good to pass up, the moment of dripping, melting gelato in the Springtime sun on a backstreet in Milan with my sister’s bright multi-colored necklace shining in the background!

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Seal Rocks: the most gorgeous outlook to the Pacific Ocean on the north coast of NSW, Australia. The turquoise waters shimmering in the summer sun and the green shrubs in the foreground, both a lovely contrast to the deep, dark blue hues of the watery expanse.

2. Intense color and contrast

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German tulips: brightening your day and the tiny dew drops topped off one of my favorite flower photos.

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African sunset: it doesn’t get any better than an African sunset along the Chobe River in Botswana. It took your breath way.

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Micro China: red, the color of fortune and royalty. These slippers from a market stall in China were a bright reminder of a regal past. I love the messiness of the close up, entangled tassels and all.

3. Ambience / enigmatic human interest

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Rainy reflections: stuck on a rainy night in the backstreets of the charming, quaint town of Suzhou, China about an hour or so outside Shanghai, the reflections of the bright lanterns with these lone girls huddled under their shared umbrella just captivated me. The blur of the photo felt in tune with the drizzly outlook from underneath my own umbrella.

Old fashioned Shanghai street: This is by no means the most fabulous set of photos, but it felt like I’d capture a moment of humanity passing by me in those moments. I was standing still and alone on a standard back street somewhere in the metropolis of Shanghai, with people, cars and mess passing by me. In those moment, two elderly gentlemen cycled slowly past, and 2 elderly ladies wandered in the opposite direction. Each a slow solitary figure in this overcrowded city. Each simply going about their own daily business and happening to have intersected with my own travels, in a moment when I too had stopped to take stock.

4. Nature: stunning scenery

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Antarctic ice sheet reflections

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Iceberg depths

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Spot the penguin

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Iceberg graveyard

5. Great smiles

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Colca Canyon Joy: traveling through the Colca Canyon in Peru, we would stop along the road to look at the beautiful local scarves and textiles, occasionally buying something or chatting with the locals. This mother and daughter captivated me – in their traditional colorful patterned dresses and hats of the local area. The warmth of the mother’s expression, the hand of the daughter leaning close to her mother. A great smile lights up a portrait like nothing else. We all look better smiling! 

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Maria de Arequipa: I managed to garner from my basic Spanish that this lady’s name was Maria as she sat smiling on the sidewalk of the old town of Arequipa, Peru making small dolls and keychain dolls – artisanship slowly being lost. Her positivity was palpable.

Have a great weekend!

M xx

5 things that make me feel blue

There was once a ridiculous song (not an unusual occurrence) released at the end of the 1990s, called Blue (Da Ba Dee).  An ironically upbeat dance song by a long-forgotten Italian pop group, Eiffel65. You might remember it, hurtling to the top of the charts in 1999 with ridiculous lyrics including a lot of “blue dabadee dabadie” and other imbecilic statements like “blue is the color of all that I wear / blue are the streets and all the trees are too”. And then it disappeared. Forever.

Funnily enough though, my sister and I loved this silly dance song (we even got the CD!) all about being Blue, about having nobody to listen to you. It didn’t feel like a sad song, like a song that someone feeling blue and lonely would listen to – I certainly couldn’t have imagined Picasso having listened to it in his blue period, even though it could have been his soundtrack on a TV satire of his life! The song felt entertaining and energetic.

This made me reflect on how many blue places or views there are in this world that calm and inspire me. Not least of all the sky – with the tufty floating clouds and sunsets. Or the ocean, beaches, and meditative, foamy, crashing waves. How much I actually love the color blue. How much I love taking photos of blue places. I love being among the natural intensity and freedom of Blue. So here are 5 of my top picks that really make me feel the beauty of Blue (in no particular order though!).

 1.  Glaciers: awe-inspired by the depth of blue color in ice

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Glacier Viedma, Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia, Argentina

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Ice castles of the Viedma Glacier. Pock-marked ice designs and textures.

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2.  Mountains and lakes: reflections of the heavens

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Trekking through the Los Glaciaries National Park, Argentina…to see this…

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Cerro Fitzroy

The trek to Cerro Fitzroy did not disappoint. It comes at the end of a tiring 3-4 hour hike without too much to give away that you will come to one of the most stunning outlooks you have ever seen. Especially as the clouds clear on a sunny day to reveal a still brightly shining, turquoise chilled lake, and spiky 11,000ft peaks (3,300mt). One of the highlights of visiting El Chalten, near the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields of Argentina. A must-see in the Patagonia region.

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3.  Antarctica: the ice continent

Antarctica needs no introduction. The remote and pristine, untouched wilderness. A virgin ice land. Like a magical world, majestic in its isolation, overwhelming in its monotone white and blue. Stunning. Even I was speechless at this outlook. More to come.

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Speechless

4.  Sky: liberation, expanse, space, freedom

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Sunrise balloon ascension

Sunrise over the mountains and valleys of Albuquerque. Clear, pure blue skies. Not a cloud. Just intense blueness.

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American blue skies

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Hues of pink and grey at sunset, Martha’s Vineyrd

5.  Oceans and the sea: calming

Having grown up in Sydney, Australia – I just love the beach. I might not have grown up surfing (in fact, I had my first lesson as a 25 year old…don’t tell anyone!), but I definitely grew up splashing about in the waves at the beach, and spending every summer walking along long sandy beaches and the national parks around them. Relaxing. Quiet. Natural. Glistening, in the bright morning sun.

There is no other place like the beach, all year round, to relax, refuel, reinvigorate, recharge. It is soul reviving like nothing else. I can do nothing and still feel like I have had a full and fulfilling day, just watching the blue waters and their mesmerizing cadence.

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Crystalline morning – East Hampton, NY

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Foamy low waters, in the quiet of the morning – East Hampton, NY

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Hover cloud, Martha’s Vineyard

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Doggie, whatcha looking  at?! – he’s got his priorities right – loving the water, eager for the beach, in awe of blue sky!

Part of my inspiration for this blog was the Aussie blog from Bondi Beach, which half the world follows – aqua bumps! Every day, the gorgeous, almost luscious photos of waves, water, surfboards, splashes is just about the best way to start the day. I tell you – Blue dabadee dabadie was onto something 😉

M xx

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Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?

I always find myself invariably distracted by random human interest articles,  attracted to artistic reviews rather than practical current affairs in my online news wanderings.  My latest distraction was an article in the NY Times about a photographer who took photos of 4 sisters over 40 years – every year since 1975!  Gorgeous, simple, raw photos – all in black and white.  Capturing sisterly connection, youth, changing fashions and hairstyles, aging.  They were really beautiful, an insight into an interesting story.

It reminded me of how portraits, both paintings and photography, are a special and incisive way of capturing relationships, emotions, human essence. It reminded me of some of the photos I took in wilderness of Botswana of the San Bushmen, a small fading group of nomadic peoples whose fate, as they are driven off the land and can no longer hunt, is reminiscent of many indigenous peoples globally. Reviewing the photography portraits of the hour or so I spent in their presence, learning about their culture, their clicking language, their expert knowledge of the wilderness and the wealth it offers us, their relationships,  I reflected upon the  intensity in their eyes. And ironically, in the comfort of my New York apartment, the old Louis Armstrong song came to mind…

When the weather vane points to gloomy
It’s gotta be sunny to me, when your eyes look into mine…

…says mother looking into her child’s eyes.

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Mother smiles and plays with her child, warms him, cleans his snotty nose. Maternal love does not change across cultures!

Intensity in the expressions shared between them; many inside jokes we didn’t understand as they laughed at us no doubt! There was happiness with their children, generosity and humor among themselves. There was also a sense of uncertainty about the future. A certain sadness.

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Young Proud San Man

The only young man in their presence, although small and fine in stature, was a proud and strong man. He is the heir apparent to lead the community here in the San community in southwestern Botswana. Apparently he was also the brother of the Botswana Ambassador in London…what a different life choice. His elder was a wispy, thin man full of sinew and filled with a sense of responsibility as he scoured the ground and earth for its riches. The most excited we saw him was when he showed us how they make fire – which literally burst into flame and lit up his whole expression.

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Elder

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 Feeding from the egg

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Twilight

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Sleepy child

Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those peepers?
Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?
Gosh all git up, how’d they get so lit up?
Gosh all git up, how’d they get that size?
Louis Armstrong – Jeepers Creepers Lyrics | MetroLyrics

There was a part of me that felt a deep sadness in the eyes of the San Bushmen in the orange, dusk lighting of the African plains – despite flashes of laughter, of fascination, of love. A loss of engagement, a loss of their community space. Sharing their portraits is partly my way to share in the awareness of the diversity in this world. To open up our horizons to different lives. To share in humanity, through the eyes and portraits of others.

M xx

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Falling in love with elephants

I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life as when I saw an elephant walking towards me.  On safari. In Kruger National Park. Amazing place! And of course, the safari guide, rather than driving backward and reversing away from the advancing bull – he drove forward and stopped the safari truck near a tree, waiting patiently for the bull to near our truck. It stopped right at the tree. Nibbled on some green shoots. Surveyed the area. Sized us up. I wandered what it was wandering about. Terrified. So terrified I even stopped taking photos, scared that the elephant’s trunk would reach into the car or hear and take offense from my camera shutter. Little did I know that animals see black and white, and in 2D – so they couldn’t see me inside the vehicle anyway! My friend took some very funny photos of my wide eyes and shocked expression as the elephant walked past us peacefully and left us well alone! What an experience.

Kruger National Park is probably one of the most incredible nature and animal sanctuaries. A reminder of what Eden must have been like. Of what the world was like before we relegated these enormous, mighty animals to small national parks. It was a meditative space of beauty. And Africa Spear was a fantastic safari company – fwiw. Our safari guide was truly passionate about the park, conservation, the animals – his knowledge was impressive. He particularly loved elephants. He would talk to them. He would talk to them. He would invite them over.

And the elephants understood. I really believe that. You could feel their intelligence. Their piercing eyes – looking deep into you. They are  majestic, grand animals. They are capable of love, gratitude, happiness, pain, expressing fun, thanks and anger. You could see them helping the children of the herd across the river, you could see them having fun with each other, spraying water and sand on themselves and others. The biggest mammals on the lands of this earth – wonderfully meditative and insightful. Old wisened men and mothers in a hulk, wrinkled body. I can see why Hindus see Ganesh as a great deity.

I came to Africa thinking I would be most fascinated by the big cats, intoxicated by my dream of seeing lions and leopards. And instead I fell in love with elephants.

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Twin delight

Most of these photos were actually taken in Botswana, in Chobe National Park. It is the home to some of the highest density of the Kalahari elephant, the largest in the world. Some 120,000 or so are in the park. And they are an impressive bunch.

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Mother and daughter

The elephants helped each other cross the rivers and would arise from the waters dark and glistening, as if their grey bone colored wrinkled bodies had turned a dark chocolate brown.

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Mamma, don’t leave me behind!

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Doesn’t he look like he’s smiling!?

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Keeping cool in the hot summer’s day

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 I see you elephant, behind that tall grass!

A must-read on your trip to Africa (or Asia) if you are going to see elephants, is the book “Elephant Company”. I think I had already fallen in love with elephants before I came into contact with them, such was the personality and humanity expressed of the gentle giants.

M xx

Scarf Symphony

Can you ever have too many scarves?  Not in my view!  This principle has been one of my guiding lights in life.  And I hear you thinking: what a ridiculous statement!  And maybe it is.  But all I can say is that scarves have been a great asset in my life.  Probably a lot more productive than many others, actually!  I buy them everywhere.  Each scarf in my wardrobe has a story.  Some share a bulk story, like the 10 scarves (or possibly more) I bargained hard for in the final hours of a Nepal trip with a great friend, huddled into a dark corner of a shop in Kathmandu.  I think our “street cred” was slightly damaged though when my friend B pulled out her amazing hot pink Visa credit card at the end of the negotiation (can you imagine!?)!

In any case, scarves are maybe one of the most sumptuous, beautiful of the female accessories. They keep me warm in winter, they add color to my wardrobe, they brighten up my room, they can serve as improvised Halloween costumes (seriously…”hippie” with a headscarf was my improvised costume when I arrived at a Halloween party after work last year, only to find that people actually take  fancy dress / themed parties seriously in the US!).  They can last a lifetime (unless you lose them when they fall out of your bag)!

In my obsessive stage of looking for abstract artworks and macro photography inspiration I literally pulled out some patterned scarves from recent travels, arranged them on my bed and started snapping away.  Funnily enough, the fact that I was doing it at about midnight on a school night, and was trying to keep the light down to avoid waking up my parents in the next room added to the mood lighting and shadow effects.  I highly recommend.

One of my favorites is the deep pink paisley patterned foulard that I picked up second hand at Le Puces markets in the north of Paris.  A silk number.  It never fails to feel stylish on me in the winter months tucked around my neck.

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The below dark blue number was a long delicate scarf with gold / beige detailing that my cousin bought for me, I believe either from India or on one of her many trips to Indian fashion stores that she was so passionate about!

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The above was actually a detail on my favorite vintage dresses from the 1950s that I bought at a wonderful vintage shop, Mint Condition, in Rozelle, Sydney. It made me feel so feminine and looked like a lolly pop in a dress.

The below was a beautiful silk scarf I bought from El Cortes, a big chain department store in Madrid. The colors reminded me of Spain – vibrant, crazy, passionate. I continue to wear it to this day.

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M xx

Lost Phones. Lost Worlds.

Sometimes I wonder if I was meant to live in another era. An era before smartphones. Or iPhones. Whatever you want to call them! I have had a tendency in the last 18 months to destroy, lose, have stolen, or simply mistreat my phones (one instance involved spilling coconut water all over my phone…yes, I drink coconut water…and I’ll have you know the phone recovered!). I have gone through 4 phones and 2 blackberries since I moved overseas (one snatched out of my hand by a road bike burglar of all things!). My mobile destruction capabilities have become infamous among my family and friends! I am even used as an example of why insurance is so expensive. In fact, I used up my phone insurance – only 2 new phones were covered. I was very unimpressed when I found out! And I swear that I wasn’t this incompetent at maintaining my communication devices in the past! Not sure exactly what happened after I moved to New York. I believe it’s because I have small hands, and the Samsung Galaxy S3 is really quite big (a little bit like the iPhone 6), so my propensity for dropping phones must be higher than the average person. I also think it has something to do with the fact that the phone is my most important accessory (and now most expensive one…my a long shot) because I love being in touch with family and friends all the time, I love correspondence of all sorts, I am an active (or hyperactive) messager, and basically I believe that if everyone carried the phone around as much as I do, they too would need a new phone every 3 months too! I am waiting for when Apple invents a phone that slips onto your hand like a glove, or an implanted chip. Then maybe my phone karma would improve!

Despite my addiction to my phone(s), there is nothing quite like a holiday that allows you to disappear from your normal, daily grind. That allows you to escape. To stop time. To live in the moment. There is nothing quite like a great adventure holiday. And there is nothing quite like escaping the unrelenting pressure of work in a big city where everyone gets so uptight and caught up…on everything. In response to this pressure cooker, I sometimes seek solace in the wilderness without wifi. That’s right, I have spent the last few years becoming a passionate wilderness traveller and have fallen in love with remoteness. Looking for places that remind you of lost worlds that are waiting to be discovered. And while I might mistreat my cameras, drop them, get water, rain and snow on them, take them kayaking in Antarctica (not recommended) or trek with them…at least they are usually too big to lose and usually come with a strap that you can stick around your neck or across your shoulders so they are attached to you. They are more reliable than phones when it comes to photography ;).

And so I share below some of my favorite wilderness shots.

Lake Viedmar Glacier outside El Chalten, Patagonia, Argentina.

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The reflections of Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

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How about a stop for lunch at the Torres del Paine?

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The dawn view at the Poon Hill trek in Nepal, part of the Annapurna Circuit, about 3800m high.

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Streams of light…and rhododendrons. Rhododendrons were a recurring theme in my photos in Nepal. I couldn’t get enough of them, to the great mirth of my travel buddy, B!

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The beauty of the Australian countryside. The Megalong Valley near the Blue Mountains…a path to heaven. Whispy clouds and windswept trees.

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The salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia are like a never ending sky. The 4WDs we were in looked like they were hovering in the milky sky.

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The desert landscape of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile was also a stark and glorious view. Burnt oranges, yellow skies. Silhouette valleys.

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Besos da Peru

As a teenager, I was lucky enough to travel to Europe (more on that later!) to experience the warmth and love of Italian hospitality and family, and to take one of those anglo-saxon peculiarities otherwise known as a “gap year” to explore the world and “grow up”.  At the end of 2009 after finishing college (or “uni”), I decided to explore a new continent…the Americas. It began with a trip to north actually, in New York and the family history in the American Northeast, but was soon followed by my first foray into South America.  My first experience of an organized tour. It was to be a 2 and a half month discovery. In one of my favorite continents now, through Peru, Bolivia,  Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.  It was without doubt an eye opening experience. One that heralded the start of a period in life where I chased after adventure travel and stunning landscape.  It opened my horizons, as with all travel into truly novel cultures and places of great beauty.  It made me appreciate big hikes and altitude.  It was seen through the eyes of young woman, still a student, before entering the world of full-time work, unfettered by responsibilities of work or demands of anything other than the pressure to enjoy youth to the max. I highly recommend Peru…enjoy…
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Lima, Peru – Lima was the first stop off into South America, and wow, what an entry! My friend J, who I am travelling around South America with, was arriving 6 hours after me, but one of her friends A from Lima picked me up from the airport with his dad, Jesus (quite common in the older generation here!). So, I got whizzed into the centre and gosh, the traffic over here is the craziest I have EVER seen! Everything about Lima is intense – the pollution fills your lungs, the buses are all from the 1950s, there are no lanes, the traffic is intense, everyone honks their horns for EVERYTHING and anything, and the local buses are pretty much just combi vans run by private drivers (because public transport is pretty much non existent and infrequent) that stop on the side of the road picking up people with their hands out and they stack about 25 people into a tiny tiny bus, people hanging out on the side, lots of stray dogs, grey apartment blocks and hollering taxi drivers who honk at everything and anything (especially given there are no indicators, seatbelts or lanes over here!)! It was good to be with locals who knew how to navigate and even then I felt like there were near misses every few seconds…but being the car with Jesus made me feel better!! Although I did go for a short walk on the Sunday morning by myself around the historic centre, and as soon as you step outside the main squares it quickly becomes dilapidated houses, beggars and no women by themselves (i.e. only with boyfriends, husbands or men), so I quickly hurried back to the hotel…no surprises there given an 8million people city which is over one third of Peru’s population and there is a lot of poverty because so many people come from the mountains and internal Peru to find work and they find that life is much worse than where they left.
Lima has quite a beautiful historic centre, the cathedral is the first ever built by the Spanish in South America, and the architecture heralds the colonial past which can be felt across South America. The traditional food to try here include Pollo a la Plancha (grilled chicken), ceviche (a type of lemon, onion and chilli marinated raw fish which is delicious), tacu tacu con bistec (corn and bean paste with beef steak) and mazzamorra morada (a type of purple corn syrup often served with arroz con leche, or rice pudding…yummmy!) Potato chips are served almost with everything because there are about 3000 types of potatoes in peru, and corn is common too with about 1000 types of corn grown in peru! But remember not to eat lettuce because it is pretty much always unclean…even though it is unlikely to get through south america without some bowel issues hehe!
After the local tour of the historic centre we picked up Julie from Lima airport and the next day we hung out again with A and his friend D who took us to the local joint to try Chicharrones – greasy pig burger basically…which we had for breakfast! We hung out in the more touristy area (feels less local than the historic centre) of Miraflores with its many shops and view to the water (albeit rather grey and muddy) before meeting up for the start of our tour with Tucan of Peru…it was primarily aussies, and mostly girls with a few couples, but having spent 24 hours 7 days for the last couple of weeks it is a great bunch of people, all of which seem to know each other rather intimately now because we pretty much always end up back at bowel movements by the end of meals…unavoidable hehe!
Pisco & Paracas / Islas Ballestas – from Lima we headed to Pisco, a tiny town on the coast of Peru south of Lima which was completely destroyed a few years ago by an earthquake. You really notice the poverty over here because the roads on the coast are often surrounded by barren sandy expanses with shanty towns, and since there are a lot of earthquakes there are a lot of towns which have half finished buildings, rubble, and motorcars and bikes navigating through unpaved streets with potholes everywhere and no powersteering! The town of Pisco is the birthplace of the famous Peruvian drink, the Pisco Sour…which include egg white, lots of lime and lots of Pisco, a strong grape liquer…hmmmm! best Pisco so far in Peru came from the tiny restaurant in Pisco, a haven among a wasteland of food otherwise!
Pisco is also close to the area called Paracas, off of which the Ballestas Islands are an amazing wildlife park. On the way to the Ballestas, we passed huge factories of anchovies and frozen fish – which gave off a strong stench – which are one of the major industries of Peru and which are factories literally dotted along a coastline which looks barren, sandy and rocky! Apparently a kg of anchovies in peru costs about A30c…so if anyone wants anchovies, let me know! The Ballestas Islands were incredible – they were this set of rocky islands which appeared quite arid and barren but which are hope to thousands and thousands of beautiful cormorants and their nests, tropical birds, cute sea lions (despite their huge size), lots of fish (due to the cold water all year round), incredibly majestic black pelicans…it felt like being in a David Attenborough episode!
The sand dunes & oasis of Huacachina – we then headed to Huacachina, which is literally this oasis of a tiny town in the middle of mountains of sand. The landscape (as you will read) in Peru is so diverse that it changes from coast and beaches, so rocky barren flat sandy desert, to amazing sand dunes, to the Andes and mountain chains, to incredible rainforests! Anyway, this was the first taste of the diversity, with an expanse of sand dunes as far as the eye could see around this tiny oasis…it was so hot and so dry and we got to go sand dune buggying which these crazy Peruvian drivers who had these open buggies with insane engines and massive tyres with the most incredible tread on them to climb sand dunes at 80km/hr and then prevent us from toppling over as we descended the dunes. We had to wear this goggles which reminded me of looking at bunsen burners in Year 8 science to prevent us from getting whipped by the sand as we drove around, but between the sunscreen adn the sandy wind we all looked like cinnamon donuts by the end of the exercise (description coined by J I should say!). We also went sand boarding, which was the most exhilirating of the trip so far! We would get driven to the top of a sand dune, jump out of the buggy, the driver would soap up what looked like a snowboard and we would lie flat on our stomachs on the board holding on to a strap for dear life as he pushed us down the hill…the board got up to quite a speed going down the hills (which got steeper and steeper) and then you’d slowly slow down once you hit the flat at the bottom of the hill! Quite a scream came out of most of us as we descended the hill, it was amazing!! I’m sure we must be able to have a sport like this in Australia, we have so much sand…it require very little prowess other than some gumption and a board! People even surf down the dunes too..although we heard a boy broke his collar bone trying to do that without experience, so maybe not!
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Nasca & the Nasca Lines – We then drove from huacachina in the late afternoon to the small town of Nasca where the famous ‘Nasca lines’ can be seen in the desert (I’ll explain shortly!). We got driven in these ‘american taxis’ which were basically like old 1950s american style wide cars with no seatbelts (no one wears seatbelts in the back of cars here anyway) and comfy cushioned chairs. All the taxis have funny sayings on the front, like ‘Dios es Amor (GOd is love)’ or ‘Soy tu Amigo (I’m your friend)’ and as we drove along the Panamericana Sur highway, I felt like I was in a crazy road trip movie – we were squashed into this old cadillac style car, with an old friendly Peruvian taxista, Jorge, and the view was incredible, flat rocky desert all around this straight highway heading into the horizon with huge reddish rocky mountains further into the distance, and the most incredible sunset. Along this highway there were occasionally thatched roof houses with men outside the front on their mobile (amazing that they had reception in the middle of nowhere!) and etched into the moutains around us were often political slogans or names…something you seen quite a lot over here, signs saying ‘working against illiteracy’ or pro-government and pro-voting slogans, or names with the date of 2011, the next presidential elections. It almost has this old-style communist feel in fact, even though it is ‘democractic’.
In Nasca there was literally one main street and main plaza, and that was about it…and the main street is just filled with small cars which are all taxis with men hollering out guapa and bonita, and one of the taxis we took even had a broken windscreen, so that made us feel really safe heading home! Lots of streetside vans sell amazing fruit – lots of tropical fruits, watermelon, papaya, thick juices, and chocolate snacks with funny names like ´Chips Ahoy!’ (ie choc chip cookies) and ‘Chocoman’. In Nasca, there is a flat desert surrounded by rocky mountains and in this barren desert there are amazing etchings of birds, spirits, monkeys, spiders and shapes which are prehistoric and because there is no wind, no rain in this area, the desert has preserved these huge carvings into the rocky ground. We took a 12 seater plane over the desert to witness the view from high which was quite incredible, although one girl was sick on the plane aargh, and it’s quite surreal to see these etchings in an area which is so barren and you can never imagine that anyone ever lived in…although there may have once been water in the past.
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Arequipa – This was the second largest city in Peru and is home to about 800,000 people. It has quite a quaint, charming feel to it with streets around the main square full of cobble stones and beautiful old churches with peruvian style decoration. It is a very earthquake prone area and has been rebuilt several times with photos of the spires after the earthquake looking like apple cores. It is also quite high up, about 2,500m and so was the first taste of altitude which was quite good to get used to given that we went up to almost 5,000m later in the week and would be walking the Inca Trail in high altitude. I didn’t have any altitude sickness, but you do get tired more easily and out of breath after short walks making you feel really unfit! Arequipa is also home to the most amazing convent where over 400 nuns used to lives throughout the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s and is almost like a town inside a town – it takes more than an hour just to walk through the cute quaint backstreets of the convent which are painted in blue and red on the beautiful white stone quarried from the area around here. It felt like you had stepped into a Wonderland, the doors were all so short (Peruvians are very short, so I’m feeling quite tall at the moment and almost knocked even my head on the door of one of the houses in the convent!)! Arequipa also has great nightlife as a student town and more women wearing traditional dress and weaving on the streets – in fact, a lot of older Peruvian women are always weaving alpaca and lama wool into yarn and fabric just as the walk around as if they don’t even realise they’re doing it! it’s quite incredible!
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Everything is also so cheap in Peru – it’s about A40c per Peruvian sol and you can get amazing local food for 7 or 8 soles (or A$3), but you can also afford to splurge on the amazing restaurants! In Arequipa there was a famous internationally renowned Peruvian chef’s restaurant called ‘Chi Cha’ where we got to taste the local specialties of chichamorada (purple corn drinks) and guinea pig, alpaca ossobuco and creme brulee in a bed of purple corn – all for the grand total of about A$17 (which is expensive here, but quite a nice treat for travellers looking for gourmet delicacies – J and I have more photos of food than anything else at the moment, except maybe for mountains!).
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Colca Canyon – From Arequipa we went to the Colca canyon, which is the deepest canyon in the world – almost double the depth of the Grand Canyon in the states, although with different surrounding scenery. It was absolutely incredible driving out to the Canyon we passed through the National park of the Salines and White waters which looked like massive flat expanses of swamp and barren dry sandy areas which are the natural habitat to 4 of the 6 species of camels in the world – including, llamas (as they call them here, pronounced yamas also considered sacred animals), alpacas and visquenas (like gazelles almost). Families in Peru and especially in the Andes often have alpacas and llamas as pets and kids walk around with baby llamas (although they don’t treat them very well!) and many women wear traditional dress and still sew the elaborate skirts and hats with colourful lace patterns and weave tapestry hats. Then you sometimes see them putting their hand into the stomach and pulling out a mobile phone! So there is this weird mix of modern and ancient which haven’t quite integrated smoothly over here!
Anyway, the views of the Andean mountains were absolutely spectacular! It’s quite a harsh landscape and the rocks are all hues of red orange and grey, with the occasional shrub and scrubby sandy patch. The Andean peoples still believe in the ancient spirits of mother earth and the leave gifts and petitions to the mountains and the rivers in such a way that the ancient religions are mixed into the official ‘Catholic’ religion. The beautiful views of the mountains are also heightened by the fact that the mountains are such so huge and so expansive – we drove through an area which was 4,910m which is 100m higher than the highest point on Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) and there were many many more mountains which were higher and snowcapped. We even spotted condors (the symbol of Peru and Bolivia or of the Andes generally) flying majestically over the mountains and through the canyon. We really felt the altitude when we went for walks around the canyon because after small inclines you could feel the blood pumping in your neck and head and sometime ended up getting a headache if you didn’t drink a lot of water. But the views were definitely worht it…just have to watch out for all the donkey poo everywhere!
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Cuzco – From Arequipa we headed further and higher into the Andes to the famous city of Cuzco at 3,500m which was the centre of the Incan Empire in the 1400s and 1500s when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in 1532, and it is a charming city (albeit slightly touristy!) with a beautiful square in the centre surrounded by cobblestone streets heading up many hills and then surrounded by lush green Andean mountains. It is a much wetter and greener area where you really feel the wet season – so every afternoon, after a morning of sun, the grey clouds slowly descend on the city, you hear claps of thunder and shortly after it proceeds to pour down rain onto this ancient city! It has some amazing museums and artefacts of the pre-Incan and Incan civilisations which are housed in a kind of old mansion with a courtyard and very little security or proper labelling – it’s amazing, because in Europe these kinds of artefacts would be protected by ropes and alarms and security guards…but not in Peru! Cuzco also is home to some of the most beautiful silver jewellery that you find all over Peru, and beautiful warm soft baby alpaca scarves and blankets! it’s hard to resist them when everything is also so reasonably priced! Cuzco is also a great centre of nightlife with so many tourists and a lot of young people studying to be tour guides (to be a tour guide in Peru requires 5 years of university study and given the importance of tourism to Peru it is a very popular option for young people) – so this was where Julie and I (who have a birthday one day apart) ended up celebrating our birthdays into the wee hours of the morning after some amazing meals of alpaca, lomo saltado (traditional Peruvian beef dish) and more! The local markets in every city, including Cusco, are also always a ‘must-see’ sight – they are usually filled with the most delightful tropical fruits and jugos (a type of fresh juice which includes all the pulp and so are thicker and richer than regular fruit juices, you find them everywhere here!) and the most incredible array of fish, meat and cereals – you can’t be squeamish though because there are plenty of pig’s heads, pig’s trotters, chicken feet, frog’s legs and even cow’s heads being sliced up in front of your eyes as you walk around!!! It was a bit of a shock to the system actually to find a cow head with the skin and ears on one side being chopped up as we perused the markets!
The Inca Trail / Macchu Picchu / Wayna Picchu / Sacred Valley – Well, everyone knows that you go to Peru for Macchu Picchu, the ancient Inca city! So, we too went on the amazing 4 day trek through the Andes to Macchu Picchu! It was the most incredible and the most inspiring experience – the trek takes you past the most spectacular mountain views, this time of much greener, more lush mountains with terraced sides from the Inca times where agriculture is still important and many small towns and groups of huts still are congregated in the areas closer to towns. The path is not a well worn path, although it is clearly marked, it remains rocky and moutainous with lots of stairs and mud. The path snakes around next to an incredible river filled with water gushing through according to a more powerful current than I have ever seen, and which is so loud that you can hear it almost the entire trek even though you walk away from it into the heart of the mountains. The trek strarted at around 3,000m and goes all the way up to 4,200m with the second day being the toughest and most gruelling, requiring an ascent of 1200m in 5km and which really tests your calf muscles, thigh muscles with huge rocky stairs, and which is a massive challenge on your lung capacity towards the end of the trek up to the peak, where you arrive exhausted and tremendously satisfied only to find that within about 5 seconds you are FREEZING in your t-shirt and so you layer up with about 6 layers from your day pack, including gloves and beanie! The landscape over the four days changes from lush green scrubby mountains to almost rainforest-like sections where it drizzles all the time, and then to forest-like sections in the clouds where you can’t see anything except for mist and white around you. we had great weather, primarily warm sun so we could walk in shorts and singlet tops, but it got cold at night and cold in certain higher altitude sections, so you kept on changing as you walked. The landscape also included passing through some amazing ancient Inca ruins, often in higher altitude areas where it was quite misty, giving it this ‘lost civilisation’ kind of mystique! I often felt like I was in a set of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and expected Gandalf or Frodo to suddenly appear – especially given that we sometimes walked in cape like ponchos a la Gandalf and used walking sticks to help our ascent and to prevent us from slipping in steep descents. Most mornings we were up around 5am and on the last morning we were up at 3:50am to be at the gates when Macchu Picchu Sacred Valley opens at 5:30am for the hour walk to the sun gate. It was an incredible experience always being up with the light because by about midday you felt like you’d had a full day already! We had porters who carried the tents, some additional provisions and food, and who cooked for us as we walked – they are amazingly fit because in the altitude they are carrying 25kg on their backs and often run past you as you’re walking so they can set up camp for when we all arrived! Some had been doing the Inca Trail for 12 years and were in their 60s, and when we would arrive to camp they would sometimes play soccer with the locals in the high altitude – we all laughed that it they came to sea level they could probably all run marathons without much training given their lung capacity and calf muscle strength! The final morning we headed to Macchu Picchu in the mist and descended into the heart of the valley to the town itself just as the clouds cleared and a brilliant sunny day revealed itself! The city of Macchu picchu is incredible – it is huge, and is made of the most beautiful white stone. The central sun temple lights up at solstice and equinox and there are still functioning fountains. Many llamas still live there, munching the grass as natural lawnmowers and the key structures were engineering feats built without any mortar, cement, mud or anything in between the stones on the structures which have lasted 500 years! It is surrounded by stunning mountains and rivers and 4 of us including myself were crazy enough to climb the vertiginous mountain of Waynapicchu which rises above the city of Macchu Picchu and provides a bird’s eye view of the entire valley! We had to use ropes to pull us up along the steep stairs (no railings or anything, no OH&S over here) and once we got to the top, it was the most exhilirating feeling to look back over the valley and witness the incredible feat of having built an entire white city in this imposing and impressive mountain setting. My legs were shaking as I stood on a rock at the top overlooking the scene of the city ensconced in its Andean paradise, most probably a mixture of fear at falling, nerves, exhaustion after the trek and the climb, and pure excitement! We made it and we conquered the mountains!!
Needless to say, we returned to Cuzco excited and rewarded and were hassled and bombarded with people around the main square offering waxing, massages and restaurants – they must know that all those who come back from the Inca Trail are exhausted enough to succumb!
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Amazon Jungle – Following the Inca Trail and some tours of the sacred valley sites of Inca ruins we headed to the opposite of the mountains – the jungle! As we flew on Star Peru (hmm I’ve seen better planes than these hehe) over the mountains around Cuzco we then suddenly witnessed a massive change in the landscape to a green expanse of flat jungle as far as the eye could see, and a brown massive river snaking its way through the green thick rainforest. Almost half of Peru is jungle, and the Amazon is so huge that you have to imagine the huge river in Peru is the Madre de Dios river that only joins onto the Amazon river 4200km away close to Brazil! We arrived to a tiny jungle town Puerto Maldonaldo and took a motorised old wooden canoe which was letting in water for an hour and a half to jungle ‘eco’ bungalows where there was no hot water, and only electricity a couple of hours each evening – there we arrived to the welcome of a tiny baby monkey who would clamber over our bags and shoes and drank starfruit and papaya juice to our heart’s content! Given it is the rainy season, it started pouring after we arrived and in our gumboots and ponchos we headed out to ‘Monkey Island’ in the Madre de Dios river, following our guide Victor with his machete, into the thick of the jungle! It was absolutely incredible – as we walked through this tiny path in the jungle that Victor hacked out for us, and walked over creaking mouldy wooden planks over muddy ground, we slowly entered into the thick of the rainforest which was filled with monkeys of all types! Spider monkeys, which look kind of like Aboriginal spirits they are so lanky, black and long with tiny faces, and about 5 other species of small monkeys! They are so beautiful, so friendly and curious – even though they are wild they would often jump gracefully through the trees until they were right on top of us so that they could get a closer look at us, just as we were trying to get of them! There were lots of mothers with tiny tiny baby monkeys clinging on for dear life on their backs! When we went to an area where we chopped up some bananas for the monkeys, they all descended like a stampede of hungry children to the dinner table to grab as much as they could – it was really quite awesome to witness the different personalities of the different monkeys – some were curious, some shy, some greedy, some clumsy, some more social, others more solitary! They are so human, it was quite beautiful to witness.
The second day in the jungle we hiked through a different section, once again following our machete-wielding guide who knew the jungle so well it was amazing – we could be walking along in thick mud up to our knees and then he would suddently stop us, point in a random direction and say ‘this animal’ or ‘that animal’ and sometimes he would even be able to entice them out (like baby tarantulas) or pick them up even though they were so well camouflaged (like tiny frogs the size of a quarter of my palm). We saw fresh jaguar tracks, bush pig tracks, a stunning array of birds and butterflies in colours as varied as purple, aquamarine, red, black, yellow and orange, sloths, caimans (small alligators), massive gigantic jungle snails, tapir tracks (the cow of the jungle weighing up to 250kg!), and all sorts of other amazing plants, trees, killer ants and mushrooms. No anacondas (thankfully!) but we were told of all the snakes that existed and how they kill their prey just to reassure us! When we finished our walk we arrived to where our little motorised boat should have been and there was nothing, so we just had to wait until some others came along the river – everything is rather relaxed in peru, things are always late, but once you get used to it, it’s actually very enjoyable because Peruvians are very friendly and helpful, gentle people. Probably the only scare we had was half way through our return on motorised canoe back to the town to catch our plane back to Cuzco the engine hit a tree as we were driving along on the river and just completely stopped! We were sitting in the lolling canoe for quite a while wondering whether we would miss our plane, or whether we even had an engine anymore…no spare engines here…or whether some paddling would be required! I can assure you that we all clapped when the engine got started again!
That afternoon we had planned to go fishing, but the rainy season interfered with our plans – once again, the dark ominous rain clouds descended upon our bunglaows faster than even our little motorised canoe could get us home and we got drenched as we cruised along the river in the heaviest torrential rain I have ever experienced – it was so powerful, so much in quantity that you couldn’t see across the river to the other side (say 700m wide at that point, it goes up to 4km wide on the Amazon river itself) and the sky and water just became a white film of water. I think we felt stickier and dirtier after half a day in the Amazon than after 4 days trekking on the Inca Trail! It was perfect weather though for lying in a sheltered hammock and chilling out, something which I have done very little of this trip so far!
Puno & Lake Titikaka – I am now in Puno, a small town on Lake Titikaka, the highest navigable lake in the world which is at 3,800m (once again in altitude!) and we are about to finish our tour in the next few days once we enter Bolivia. We went onto the islands of the Lake and stayed with a local family, so we did some shopping at the local market for the family as thanks for the hospitality before we went – we bought 3kg of rice, 2kg of flour, 1kg of lentils, sugar and corn flour, a bottle of oil, 2 cans of condensed milk, some sauces and meat and chicken stock – all of which cost us about 25 soles or less than A$10!
Lake Titikaka is a stunning landscape – it is huge! 160km x 100km at its largest and it really does look like a huge sea with mountains surrounding it in the distance. There are many islands where traditional communities still live and we visited  of them – the first was the Uros Islands which are literally man-made islands out of mud and reeds and the families make the most beautiful tapestries and use reed boats and paddle boats or motorised canoes to go between their ‘islands’ and Puno. Each family lives on an island, so each island is about a quarter of the size of a normal Australian house block and each island has a ‘president’ or head of the family who wears a colourful beanie to show his status. The people were incredibly friendly and showed us their reed homes and dressed us up in their garb – needless to say, we looked quite ridiculous! The amazing thing was that on these tiny islands they use solar power for electricity and get mobile reception!!!
The second island we visited was Amantani islands (about 5000 people), and this was where we stayed with a local family. Our Peruvian ‘Mama’ Olga brought us to her mudbrick house on the island at 3,900m (we were exhausted by the time we got there) and made us lunch and dinner – they only eat vegetables and their hospitality, whilst incredibly basic (some families only have candles at night and they do not have running water or normal toilets) was very warm. They loved talking to us in broken Spanish (we spoke broken Spanish and their first language is Quechua, the ancient Inca language that mountain peoples still speak) and telling us about their lives which were spent mainly walking across the island to see family (her mother and her sister’s family lived an hour’s walk away) and producing potatoes for subsistence living. We ended up playing soccer against the locals (they had a small cement ‘field’), watching the sunset from the highest point on the island which was stunning, and dancing at the local ‘disco’ hall with our families all dressed up in traditional dress. It was quite an experience and the beauty of the Lake and its views, and the warmth and generosity of its peoples (they made us a pancake for breakfast even though they had their noodle soup because sugar is very special here) were quite overwhelming – those with nothing are often the most generous we came to realise.
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On the following day we visited the other major island with about 3000 people, Taquile. In this island, the women make all the decisions and the men are the expert weavers instead who weave amazing tapestries and knit beautiful wares all day. We were recounted the traditions of romance and courting on the island which consisted of men and women wearing different pom poms on their scarves and different types of floppy hats to signify being single or married…quite incredible! It was especially useful because it the men are very shy on the island we were told!
After 2 days on the islands and the spectacular lake Titikaka (beware of the strength of the sun though in such high altitude, our whole group got severely burnt!!) we are now again in Puno preparing to head to Bolivia tomorrow.
I have loved Peru so much more than I expected – the distinctive and traditional culture that is still strong, the gentleness of the people and their sense of humour, the yummy food, the amazing and diverse scenery and just generally the fun discoveries that I have made – I highly recommend it! But hey, I haven’t visited the rest of South America yet so there could be more recommendations!
Couldn’t help but share some of the evening revelries dancing in the local school hall!
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Anyway, this is the summary as it stands! Apologies for the verbosity, but I believe most of my friends are used to it by now! There are many more stories to tell, many more funny, interesting, at times unusual experiences to share…
xox
M

Welcome to America!

I have been in the US now 18 months, and I really have loved every minute of the experience of living in New York City, as hectic and exhausting as it can be! Reflecting on my experiences in my new adopted country, the country of my paternal relatives and history, I found this old email recount of my first experience of coming to the US – for Thanksgiving in 2009 – wow 5 years ago! Time flies! It had been almost 50 years since my Dad had been back to the US of A, the country of his birth, and we shared a true family experience going into the suburbs of Jersey for the afternoon Thanksgiving meal – something I highly recommend for a true blue-blooded American experience!

On the one hand it felt like I’d been away forever and my Sydney life was an alternate universe (much like I feel now), whereas on the other hand it felt like I had just started my trip the day before… and, as per my usual ‘summary’ I attempted to keep it as brief as I could, but you will find I always have so much to say that even an unabridged version couldn’t possible communicate just how wonderful the trip and its discoveries had been!

So, much like the start of this blog with its distinct New York flavor, the tale begins in USA

New York – It all began one dark Sunday night in the Big Apple in the US of A…New York City…what an amazing city! It really is the city that never sleeps – arrived in Sudnay night staying near the Empire State Building in midtown and the streets around Fifth Avenue were still packed with people! How to summarise a city which has so much – the glamour of Upper West Side and Central Park apartments of Madonna, Yoko Ono, the glitz of never ending shows along Broadway, the tacky lights and flashing signs of Times Square that make you feel like you’ve just steeped into a movie set (in fact, you see filming all over the place as you walk down the street and people are trying to have movie takes on Fifth Avenue in between the crazy yellow taxi traffic!), the culture of the amazing museums like the Met and MOMA, the incredible awe you feel at being surrounded by high rise buildings of Manhattan that dwarf you (the sheer height and quantity of all the buildings in Manhattan make you feel like you’ve been superimposed at a smaller than normal size onto the streets, it’s quite an incredible feeling!). The amazing architecture of Art Deco mixed with earlier classical and later ultramodern skyscrapers gives New York a distinct and unique feel. The landmark buildings, Wall St bull, Brooklyn Bridge and shops along Fifth Avenue all decked out with the most beautiful winter Christmas lights, the Rockerfeller Centre and Bryant Park ice skating rinks are such icons that you feel like you’ve stepped into a movie set at times!

It was quite an emotional experience to come to New York and discover my heritage as well – I went to Ellis Island where 12 million immigrants arrived primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, including both my grandparents on my Dad’s side. Seeing what they must have experienced, the diversity of the immigrants, the openness of the American nation, and the passing by the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of hope for so many immigrants over decades who were escaping persecution was quite moving and poignant. The Statue of Liberty is a truly beautiful image, and quite an incredible feat of enginerring (the inside was designed by Gustav Eiffel!) given that this copper metal statue gives a stunning sensation of sold folded material! The meaning of the statue, a gift from France as a symbol of liberty and freedom at American Independence, with the 7-spike crown symbolising the 7 continents of the world, the flame of freedom, and the statue steeping on the broken chains of oppression. The view back to the skyline of Manhattan is also spectacular – even on a freezing windy autumn day!

I had the chance to experience the culinary and gastronomical delights of New York at the various hot dog houses, the Union Square markets, some amazing restaurants in SoHo and West Village. One of the highlights was some amazing Italian food (it’s fab in NYC!) that one of my sister’s friends, T, who is studying at Columbia Uni brought me to – it was a converted wharehouse that had awesome decor and funky glass doors that gave you a view out to the terraces and beautiful trendy apartments of West village, followed up with cocktails at this live jazz bar and one of T’s local hangouts also in West Village which was literally a door on a random street corner with a dodgy looking man standing outside who would let you in, you descended some dark stairs and found yourself in this pokey hole of a bar, which had once been a prohibition era jazz bar, with 1940s pressed metal bar and diner style seats you snuggled into and sat around chatting over amazing cocktails!

Squirrels in central park, strawberry hills where the large ‘Imagine’ mosaic to remember the death of John Lennon in NYC, the night view of the city from Empire State which has an incredible story of its 102 storeys having been built within the record time of 1 year and 45 days during the Depression, the awesome back streets and trendy galleries of SoHo, the area around NYU and Washington Square with all of its student hangouts and restaurants, the fabulous New York accent, the charismatic salesmen on the streets, the shops (Saks & Company must have had the most incredible jewellery sections with bracelets for $17,000 and up!) and more…I really do love New York, even though it is such a cliché!

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Philadelphia – I decided to head to Philly to meet up with my Dad’s cousin, Sandy, who I had never met before but who was an incredibly friendly and wonderful woman, like an Aunty I had never known! She was delightful and we spent an entire day discovering Philly, a very historic town which although feels very very small after NYC, is one of the most important cities in American history – the declarattion of Independence was signed there i 1776, and between 1790 and 1800 it was the capital of the USA while Washington was being built. The Bill of Rights was signed there whilst it was home to parliament in those 10 historic years of the foundations of the independent America and many famous Americans, including William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and others had strong associations with Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell is also housed there which has been a symbol of liberty and freedom not just during the times of the independence, but also later during times such as the Civil Rights movement of a better world. There are many areas in Philly which also have a swanky feel of West Village and SoHo in New York, with small brick houses and apartment blocks which appear traditional on the outside but often house amazing modern artsy interiors. I also got a chance to try a hot pastrami sandwich and motza balls from Heschel’s famous Jewish eatery – gosh, the pastrami sandwich was HUGE and all the animal fat still on it (ugh!) but it was an incredible taste…I probably don’t need one for another 23 years! I also ended up meeting up with a friend I met travelling last year in Lagos, Portugal from Philly who showed me the swanky night scene of Philly and the pubs around town – always good to be shown around by a local I say! The funny thing about Philly is that the streets going north south are numbered (kind of like NYC, so it’s maps for dummies!), but the east west streets are named after trees or nuts – so there’s Walnut, Pine, Chestnut and all sorts of other interesting specimens which was quite entertaining!

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Thanksgiving in Dover, New Jersey – Thanksgiving was spent in Dover, New Jersey with my Dad’s extended family and was a truly delightful family experience. The spread of food was incredible, so much turkey and homemade cranberry and apricot sauce, lots of vegies cooked all sorts of ways, mash and potatoes, and it all started at about 3pm because no-one eats all morning then you drive late morning to your family’s place (I came from Philly with Aunt Sandy and her husband Mike, driving through Pennsylvania and New Jersey and witnessed the industrial strips of refineries and old factories, the pharmaceutical strip with all the pharma companies and their manufacturing plants and headquarters, and the great industrial machine of the USA that had started in the 1960s, of which some areas are now in decline esp in New Jersey around the old automobile plans that have shut down adn are now offshore) and you eat all afternoon and into the night! It was an extremely interesting experience and many funny stories and interesting people came out of that day which I will never forget. Leaving in the evening by myself back to New York to catch the early morning plane (had to get up at 4:30am the next morning aargh) I was sad to be leaving the States, but I know I will be back…and more exotic things awaited…

And coming into the Thanksgiving season now…I can’t help but be excited for what will be my third Thanksgiving which will now have an international foreigner’s bent to it with turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and probably some Romanian, German, Bosnian, Australian and British sprinkled into it…isn’t that modern America??

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