A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: jslabovitz

Waiting for the train

This afternoon I arrived at the train station in Vila Real de Santo António assuming a short wait. Instead I found the online schedule had been wrong, and I had just missed my train, and would wait another hour and a half for the next one to Tavira.

In the same situation was Domingos, a young man from Guinea-Bissau. He offered me swigs from his one-liter Super Bock beer, which he tilted carefully above his mouth to avoid mouth contact. It was a polite action I'd seen before in my travels -- perhaps in Morocco or Romania? I offered him apricots, bought this morning in the mercado where fish merchants sold still-writhing eels.

Domingos & I commiserated about the long wait ahead of us, he in a patois of Portuguese, French, and Spanish, and me monolingual at best, scattering simple, pan-Latin words when I could.

But we got along nonetheless, as strangers usually do. I had to pee, and Domingos suggested the nearby supermercato where he'd bought his beer. As I relieved myself, Domingos got cash from the ATM and took a number for the queue at the little cafe within the supermarket. He got himself another beer (he'd finished the liter we'd started in the station), and ordered me a coffee, and, just for good measure, a small glass of pungent port.

We sat amongst the chatty women and the quiet men at the tiny cafe, and talked of Africa, of mothers and brothers and girlfriends, of work and of play, of music and the timing of trains.

After another beer, it was time to go, and we walked back to the station in the golden sunlight of the day's end. We boarded the waiting, empty train. Domingos showed me the bottle of Madeira wine given to him by his good friend he'd been visiting, and poured a finger into the glass he'd stolen from the cafe. As the sun went down among the marshy pools of the Algarve, we sipped the warm liquor and headed west to Tavira.

[Tavira, Portugal]

Posted by jslabovitz 15:37 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Waking up in mystery

semi-overcast 48 °F

I wake to a warm morning and a thick head from last night’s wine. Pigeons careen overhead like geese. The flock of peacocks scrabble down the cliff of the canyon outside my little studio. Cars and trucks buzz from the nearby highway that winds over the bridge into Mértola. The air seems more flexible, breathable; it’s a welcome change from the last few frigid nights.

I start what is now my morning ritual: a small fire in the woodstove to burn off the remaining cold in this stone building, a pot of espresso on the simple gas range, rote cleaning of last night’s dinner dishes. The refrigerator isn’t plugged in; I hope its insulation plus the cold nights is doing a good enough job with the milk and cheese.

This place is minimal: no heat besides the small wood stove, and an on-demand water heater that I only turn on when I really want hot water. Heavy blankets act as insulation draped across the rough doors of steel and glass, and more blankets insulate me while I sleep. The simplicity stops my habits, makes me consider actions, ponder consequences.

This is the life of the farm, of earthy practicality. Everyone, even the other guests, has dirt under their fingernails. I feel strangely too clean, sterile with my computer and camera.

News from Portland and Silverton twitters in via the internet connection. Morning here is near midnight there; my urban friends are traipsing around the city, documenting their comings and goings. Other friends on the west coast are off to bed, yawning as they type their last email.

I glance at my camera, ready on its tripod. I made my first photographic exploration yesterday, hefting my gear up the hill above the convent building. On the top of the hill is the aerie, the place the birds live. Up here are odd structures designed not for people but for avians: a short square tower, a dome-like building that could be a granary, an angled wall with a tiny roof. All these are homes for birds, carefully constructed to be welcoming to the birds that fly around the banks of the river.

At the very top of the hill is a wide, flat place, carefully cobblestoned in a large circle, smooth stones drawing the spokes of a wheel. In ancient times, perhaps before the convent, this was where corn was threshed. But there are vaguer meanings here: rumors that the spokes have meanings in ancient astronomy, or point in certain directions to places of forgotten importance. Someone was just telling me of ley lines, of electromagnetic forces that invisibly connect powerful places. This part of Portugal has been inhabited for a very long time: there are dolmens and other stone-age monuments scattered around these Alentejo hills.

And now, in these modern times where we know so much, these convent grounds seem to be built on mystery. Geraldine, Christiaan, and Louie have lived here since 1980; over the years, the family has slowly restored the abandoned, crumbling halls and courtyards, rebuilt the water mill, planted trees, and created and tended to what seems like dozens of tiny, distinct gardens. Geraldine and Christiaan are both artists, and art infuses everything. There is nothing factual and simple and straightforward here; everything has a deepness, as if the meaning is buried like an iceberg. As I explore the grounds, I am always running across small surprises: a piece of smooth glass balanced on a rock, a stack of slate like pages of a book, an arm from an old statue used as the edge of a footbridge.

Posted by jslabovitz 01:51 Archived in Portugal Comments (1)

Out of the dark Northwest

We lift off on a rare gorgeous November day. Above bands of shadowy conifers and glittery rivers rise the snowcoated mountains: Baker, Adams, Saint Helens.

It’s a good moment to leave the Northwest, under blue skies instead of sodden gray clouds. A little bit of regret on departure is always better than being desperate to leave. My last vision of my home base will be one of warm sun, not the cold rain that seeps into my bones during the winter.

For me, this is a season when time spins faster and faster into the year-end abyss; the diminishing lengths of the day and the deepening cold cause me to crawl further into my burrow, a grimace on my face from the overdose of holiday consumerist cheer.

On a short trip to Italy last December, the warmer and sunnier climes woke me back up, opened my eyes, straightened up my back, let me breathe. I decided then that after a decade of enduring the Northwest winters, it was time to admit defeat and move on for this season, returning once a new year has come and the days begin to lengthen.

My month-long trip to Istanbul in June was a successful first stab at a new way of travel: to live in one place for a while, to get to know its land, light, air, streets, people, and the life that happens there. The trip took me on a path that ran nearby the travelers road — for one month is certainly not enough time to go truly local — but one that felt more like a meandering lane than the usual hectic freeway of hotels, sights, restaurants, trains, and buses.

This time I am continuing in this deliberate method, but with yet more intention. I have applied for and received an artist’s residency at a decommissioned convent, now art center, in the town of Mértola in southeastern Portugal. My proposal to the Convento Saõ Francisco, though vague in body, does sketch a definite skeleton: I will photograph around the area, and write my impressions; at the same time, I will design and layout a book to contain the images and text. By the time I return in January, I plan to have a volume that encapsulates some aspect of my time spent in this rural land.

In a sort of photographer’s penance, I have loaded myself down with a large backpack filled with cameras, lenses, film, tripod, and laptop, and a smaller bag of clothing and other minimal living gear. I am my own mule and assistant, yet I am looking forward to the hopeful discipline and focus that I hope will come from making both the physical and verbal declaration that I am a photographer, photographing.

Posted by jslabovitz 14:10 Comments (0)

The dance of the swallows

77 °F
View Istanbul on jslabovitz's travel map.

The swallows appear again, just at dusk outside my window, launching a spectacle of aerobatics as they swoop around the roofs of the apartment buildings. They trilling madly, swirling in little ballets of two or three, then break up into solos, diving and chortling all the way. Within minutes, the show is over, and they’ve moved on to other venues.

I’m on the downward arc of my stay here in Istanbul. This is my last weekend experiencing this exciting city, the last Saturday I will spend wandering the busy streets. Although Istanbul never really sleeps, from tomorrow until early Tuesday morning when I depart, the city will be moving slightly slower.

The quick onset of the summer has been difficult for me. The temperature rises to the early eighties by mid-morning, and if I haven’t made it out by then, I cloister myself in the somewhat cooler apartment, working on projects, listening to the city, until the evening air tempers the heat. So my days are slow, filled more with thinking and creating than with wandering and observing. It’s okay, really: there’s a different quality to be experienced, to be more resident than tourist.

Perhaps this is what it’s like to be an expat, to be away from one’s native country and to set up work and home in another, very different, place. I always thought being an expat was more about the ex, the act of leaving. And patriot is a concept I’ve always found alien, so the route to unbecoming one is not clear to me at all.

Now I’m seeing that the ‘expat experience,’ if it can be described at all, is not a particular event that happens, not a line crossed, not a decision made. It’s not even about acting in a particular way. It is more like a sense of being, crossed with a sense of place, tinged with a sense of the exotic. Perhaps it is the opposite of traveling: it is forgetting that one is traveling in a place, and waking up one day finding that one is living there.

The repetition becomes a kind of meditation practice: I walk the same streets, pass the same buildings, see the same skyline over the same rooftops, cross the same river. The place begins to show its nature. What was new becomes recognized, familiar, no longer so foreign and exotic.

So this is where I live, in a six-story flat in Hoczade Street, near Taksim Square, in Beyoğlu, in central Istanbul. Descend the 90-odd steps to the street, and smile at our friendly apartment neighbors. We’ll leave the building through its never-locked front door. Glance across the road to the men under the overhang at the little parking lot, where there is always someone ready to park a car for a few lira; more importantly, there is always someone to chat with, to share the day’s news or the expectations of tonight’s football game. Just next door you’ll notice the friendly and cheap barber shop, where the fellow who cut my hair one day invited me to sit down for tea the next day; we had a very long conversation in Turkish, which I cannot understand at all.

Up the street, just there on the right, is the produce shop that run by the cheery man who, although he’s Turkish, prefers to speak to his customers in French; I respond in my pidgin mix of everywhere I’ve been, including France. I taught him how to say ‘thank you’ in Japanese while buying his scrumptious peaches, which he carefully cradled in little gray paper bags.

Down the other way, see the young man who sells fashionable T-shirts. He seems to never close his shop. We’ll cross the street (watch that taxi!) to the corner grocery store where the owner’s kid brother is learning to make change and to answer the phone. Just beyond, in the small courtyard fashioned out of the side of the street, you’ll see two cats (Istanbul is full of stray but cared-for felines) sitting on the same pair of motorcycles, like they do every day, calmly in the heat, on the the black seats warming in the sun. Avoid looking into the sad eyes of that woman who tries to sell packages of tissues for a lira. Have a delicious tantuni — no, make it two — at the cafe on the corner that specializes in these delicious wraps; do not be surprised when the efficient yet ebullient waiter snatches your digital camera out of your hand to take your own photograph of yourself.

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 13:12 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Exploring unknown neighborhoods

sunny 70 °F
View Istanbul on jslabovitz's travel map.

Lost in Istanbul. Not exactly — I just don’t know where I am. I’ve gotten off the bus somewhat randomly, thinking I’m where I was trying to go, but finding I am not.

I can place myself vaguely: a neighborhood up the hill from Eyüp, southwest of the Golden Horn. The street culture seems more Arabic here, much more so than around Taksim: more head scarves, coats, more conservative clothing. Less fashionable, more everyday, more casual. The street is crowded and active, but nowhere near like around Taksim Square.

I’m eating a hamburger, of all things, at a Turkish fast-food joint along a shopping street. I overlook the street from the second floor of the restaurant, and flash back to Morocco — the viewing of life passing through the cafe’s buffer/filter of height and glass. No one seems hurried here: all strolling at about the same confortable, observing pace.

The girl downstairs at the pastry country says hello, asks where I’m from, and is surprised I am American. She says she’s from Iraq, and says America is very nice. I goof and reply the same about her country, and she says, emphatically, ‘No.’ A look comes over her face to say, ‘No, no — Iraq is not nice at all, and it’s America’s fault.’ I shrug, try to convey that she is correct, and that I am not to blame — she smiles, says, ‘Okay.’

[dateline Istanbul, Turkey]

Posted by jslabovitz 03:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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