Libraries as Cultural Hotspots

 

An installation at The State Library of Victoria during White Night in 2014. The library hosted almost 2 million visitors last financial year. Kerry O’Brien publicity

Never one to tire of reading about libraries, the essay below gives me a surge of hope in a world where culture is often upstaged by bullish showmanship. The sense that libraries encapsulate and span centuries of human endeavors, yet still evolve and remain essential to communities around the world is completely on point. “All hail the librarian!”, indeed.

Friday essay: the library – humanist ideal, social glue and now, tourism hotspot

Last year two Danish librarians – Christian Lauersen and Marie Eiriksson – founded Library Planet: a worldwide, crowdsourced, online library travel guide. According to them, Library Planet is meant to inspire travellers “to open the awesome book that is our world of libraries, cities and countries”.

The name of the online project is a deliberate nod to the Australian-made Lonely Planet. The concept is simple and powerful. Library lovers contribute library profiles and images from their travels; the founders then curate and publish the posts, with the ambition of capturing library experiences and library attractions from around the world.

Why make libraries a focus of travel? There are a thousand practical and aesthetic reasons, as well as cultural ones. Libraries for the most part are safe and welcoming places. And they tell unique stories about the people who build and appreciate them. If books are the basic data of civilisation, then nations’ libraries provide windows on national souls. They are precious places in which to seek traces of the past, and reassurance about the future.

Library Planet now has dozens of intriguing profiles – including from Burma, Iceland, Tanzania and French Polynesia. A recent entry celebrated the Melbourne Cricket Club library at the MCG. The site has rapidly become a favourite among the bibliographical communities and subcultures of Instagram and Twitter, such as #rarebooks, #amreading and #librarylove. Continue reading

Weavers at Hand

This video expresses the concept of artisan ethos in almost too many ways to count: from the centuries old traditions of weaving in India , to creative communities coming together to rebuild cultural patrimony in the face of natural disasters, not to mention the well-crafted visual storytelling of the piece itself. (Kudos yet again to Anoodha and her Curiouser team for their own style of weaving.) Continue reading

Nostalgia, Sentiment & Tangibles

I knew this was coming. And from the look of it, I will visit it. They could have torn it down and started afresh, but they decided instead to build on memories. I appreciate that. In September, 1983 I was inside that building sitting on the floor for several hours.

Those red benches were nowhere to be seen back then. We were all waiting for a storm-delayed TWA flight to Athens.

Sitting next to me in the long line of travelers was a young woman, and our conversation would surely seem inconsequential if we could review a transcript of it. As it happens, however, that conversation led to an odyssey that continues to this day. So when I saw this photo feature I had to look.

46498703.jpgAmie and I worked together in India on a project to repurpose a historic place, and we came to appreciate the challenge of being respectful of history, yet not a slave to it. We wanted to tap into strong sentiments related to that specific place and its place in history without being sentimental. And please, no nostalgia. So in addition to looking back, we looked forward, and how well we accomplished the task is for others to judge.

TWAMerch.jpgWe are now working on a project that has some of the same challenges. It involves a historic property and the challenge in this case, while involving spatial design, is mostly focused on deciding what type of merchandise is appropriate. This t-shirt is on offer at the TWA Hotel website. I will likely get one, for the same reason that postcards have always been important to me. But our work currently is digging deeper on the memento question: what tangible reminder of this place is essential for a visitor to have when they go home. The answer is elusive, but close.

Ithaca Dreams

Olive trees along the shore of Dexa Beach on the Ionian island of Ithaca, thought to be Odysseus’ homeland, as told in Homer’s eighth-century B.C. epic poem “The Odyssey.” Credit Alex Majoli

Odysseys (not to mention, The Odyssey) are a fundamental aspect of our family’s peripatetic lives. Having lived in 5 countries on 4 continents, there are places that continue to draw us back with roots that run wide and deep. Greece is one of those places, for multi-generational reasons. It strikes me as strange that we’ve never been to Ithaca, at least the one that Pico Iyer writes about here.

The Ithaca we’re tethered to in many ways is the Ithaca of the new world: the birthplace of our sons, the home of Cornell University, the place that draws us back to a 3rd generation, still.

The strength of stories is as powerful as the bonds of love for family and for motherland, and I thank Pico for continuing to share his with us all.

One writer chronicles his voyage to the island of Ithaca, where Odysseus was once reputedly king.

I STEPPED INTO a taxi on my arrival in Athens and mentioned the name of one of the city’s most central five-star hotels. The driver was thrown into a frenzy, and not only because he seemed to speak no English. As we zigzagged at high speed through the jampacked streets, he tapped frantically on his smartphone and started calling friends, none of whom were any help at all. When, finally, we pulled up at the entrance, I was greeted by a wild-haired, gesticulating front-desk man who said, “We’re so sorry, sir. We have a problem, a big problem, today. So we have made a reservation for you in our other hotel. Half a block away.”

The problem, the taxi driver conveyed, was that every toilet in the hotel had flooded.

In the fancy new place where I ended up — it took us 20 minutes to go around the corner thanks to narrow, one-way streets — I walked into an elevator to be confronted by two thickly bearded Orthodox priests in full clerical dress crammed into the same small space, cellphones protruding from their pockets as they wished me, in easy English, “Good evening.” The mayhem of the little lanes I’d just come through, the sunlit dishevelment of the buildings, which seemed to be collapsing as much as rising up, the graves in the middle of the city: I felt, quite happily, as if I were not in Europe but in Beirut or Amman.

The real antiquity in Greece, I thought — and this is its enduring blessing, for a visitor — is its daily life; on this return trip, retracing a course I’d followed 35 years before, from the classical sites of the Peloponnese (ill-starred Mycenae and healing Epidaurus) all the way to Odysseus’ storied home on Ithaca, I was noticing that it’s precisely the slow, human-scaled, somewhat ramshackle nature of arrangements here that gives the country much of its human charm. Yes, you can still see Caravaggio faces around the Colosseum in Rome; along the ghats in Varanasi, India, you’re among the clamor and piety of the Vedas. But in Greece, it’s the absence of modern developments — of high-rises and high-speed technologies — that can make you feel as if you’re walking among the ancient philosophers and tragedians who gave us our sense of hubris and catharsis.

Forget the fact that the Klitemnistra hotel is down the street from Achilles Parking; what really gives Greece its sense of being changeless is that the Lonely Planet guidebook gives you a cure for the evil eye, and a man is crossing himself furiously as he attempts to double-park. The Grecian formula that keeps the place forever young — and old, and itself — has less to do with the monuments of kings and gods than simply with the rhythms of the day: Fishing boats are heading out before first light and the shepherd’s son is leading the priest’s niece under the olive trees in the early morning. Black-clad women are gossiping in the shade and donkeys clop and stop over ill-paved stones in the siesta-silent, sunlit afternoon. At night, there’s the clatter of pots from the tavernas and the sound of laughter under lights around the harbor.

All in a landscape where the deep blue sea surrounds you on every side, and the indigo and scarlet and orange flowerpots are bright with geraniums and begonias. It’s not just that you feel the presence of a rural past everywhere in Greece; it’s that, amid this elemental landscape of rock and cobalt sky and whitewashed church, you step out of the calendar altogether and into the realm of allegory.

Continue reading

Stacked Stones Had Nothing To Do With It

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After writing yesterday’s post I got a message from the “new friend.” She is the one on the right in the photo above. I am the one on the left. My two childhood friends are in the middle. The new friend’s name, Amie, will be familiar to regular readers on this platform. After reading my post yesterday she sent me these three old photos. Above is at the top of the gorge, just as the sun is coming over the mountain. Dawn’s rosy tipped finger, someone among us surely said. By late morning, time for a fruit break, below is the place where I might have started thinking of stacking stones, in the figurative sense of wishing something of the future. But I did not then, nor do I now, believe in totemic powers of objects, or good luck.

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I believed that a new friendship was sufficient good fortune, and being in that natural setting was the closest I got to worshiping things.

SamariaC&A2.jpegNo need to stack stones. As we made our way down to the bottom of the gorge, to where those sky-high rock walls allowed single file passage to the black stone beach, conversation was the thing.

The black stones were a surprise because they seemed to bear no relationship with the geology of the gorge. And I do remember now, playing with the stones, and surely stacking them while we sat there looking out to the sea, continuing the conversation. But I was not stacking stones in the way Sophie Haigney’s story refers to.

Really. I can say that with confidence because Amie reminds me that the oblong oval-shaped stones were not stackable. So I tried my best, but could not get one to rest upon another. That said, I am also confident that while not superstitious I was still able to make wishes, and then take actions to fulfill them.

Stop Stacking Stones

 

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The steep downhill path starting from Xyloskalo

If I have done it, it would have been once. And hopefully less of an issue than the examples given in this story below. It was a day in September, 1983 and I had traveled to Greece with two childhood friends, all of us now in early adulthood. With us was one new friend, who we had met in JFK airport just prior to departure.

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The peaceful river crossing Samaria Gorge

On the island of Crete, we left Xania well before sunrise to hike from the top to the bottom of Samaria Gorge, as far south in Greece as you can get and still be on land. With every switchback of our descent, I was getting more and more lost in conversation with our new friend, so that by the time we reached the bottom of the gorge I wondered where the day had gone. After a full day of hiking, lost in conversation or otherwise, the stones of the gorge play on your mind.

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The impressive Portes in Samaria Gorge

At this point you pass through one last formation that is so stunning that if you had not been thinking of playing with stones until now, you had not been paying enough attention. And that was my case. I remember walking silently through this last section and not talking again until the very end, when you spill onto a beach formed by smooth black stones, facing south, nothing but water until you reach Africa. There, in Agia Roumeli, you can get a cool drink before a boat takes you back to Xania. And while you wait for the boat, if you have something to wish for, you may find yourself stacking those smooth black stones.

My photographs from that day, somewhere in storage, would show the beginning, long middle sections, and end of that day. If I did stack stones the evidence will be in those photos, and I will find them. For now I have linked to photos from the blog of a Cretan travel consortium to give a hint of what the place looks like, and as a recommendation to others to visit. Sophie Haigney, writing on the New Yorker website, gave me reason just now to think about my own culpability in what can now be described as a dangerous, destructive form of travel footprint, and I thank her for bringing this to our attention:

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An Instagram trend that’s littering national parks with towers of carefully balanced stones, #StoneStacking can cause erosion and damage ecosystems. Photograph by Sam Oakes / Alamy

People Are Stacking Too Many Stones

The photograph in the Facebook post is pretty: piles of red rocks balanced at the edge of a cliff, suggesting a miniature mirror of the jagged rock face opposite. The stacks look like small shrines to mountain solitude, carefully balanced at the edge of a precipice. But when Zion National Park posted the photo, in September, the social-media coördinators for the park included a plea: “Please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.” The post noted the “curious but destructive practice” of building small stone towers, and said, “stacking up stones is simply vandalism.” Continue reading

Resisting Cruise Ship Pollution

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The MS Allure of the Seas, the largest passenger ship ever constructed, leaves Marseille. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

We thank Angelique Chrisafis, correspondent for the Guardian, for this reminder of an element tarnishing tourism, which can otherwise often be a force for good. Cruise ship tourism pollutes on a grand scale. This particular machinery demonstrates how parts of the tourism machinery can be a force for dark, very dirty impact. It calls for resistance:

‘I don’t want ships to kill me’: Marseille fights cruise liner pollution

Shipping is estimated to account for 10% of city’s air pollution, and campaigners are targeting cruise industry in particular

From his balcony above Marseille’s port, Jean-Pierre Eyraud has a prime view of the giant, luxury cruise liners that dock in the city bringing 1.5 million passengers a year.

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The Old Port area of Marseille. Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images

But since Eyraud was diagnosed four years ago with throat cancer – a diagnosis several others in his neighbourhood by the port have also had – he watches with a sense of dread as the floating holiday palaces drop off day-trippers.

He and environmental campaigners fear the air pollution caused by cruise ships burning fuel all day at port is choking Marseille’s citizens along the coast.

“The paradox is that in Marseille we love all form of ships – we watch them leave with a kind of longing, they are symbols of freedom with the sea as an infinite expanse,” Eyraud said. “But at the same time, I don’t want ships to kill me.” Continue reading

Life List Birding

Jabiru Stork by Richard Kostocke - La Paz Group

Jabiru stork taking flight from the Blue Creek rice fields, Orange Walk District, Belize

The name “Jabiru” is derived from the Tupi–Guarani family of languages from South America and means “swollen neck”; an apt description. This is the tallest flying bird in South and Central America and is second in wingspan (excluding pelagic flyers like albatross) only to the Andean Condor.  This denizen of wetland habitats is a voracious, opportunistic forager on a wide variety of animal matter, living or dead.  Needless to say, an impressive bird and I was ecstatic to see it!

It was past the mid-point of our Belize vacation, and as good and enjoyable as the birding had been, life birds (new species that I had never seen before) were fewer and farther between than I had anticipated/hoped.  I guess that was to be expected given that I have visited the Neotropics several times previously.  I had already seen many of the common, easy, widespread species (e.g., many if not most of the hummingbirds, parrots, motmots, etc.) that make birders new to the Neotropics giddy.  After talking to the local guides, apparently most of my desired life birds were the tough ones (hard to find, rare, skulky, etc.).  As I went through my list of target birds, they just kind of smiled and shook their heads. Continue reading

That Thing About Uber

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For what it is worth, a confession. I deleted this app with the intent to never use it again, and then I switched to this one. That felt good. Then last week I was up in the mountains of Escazu, in Costa Rica, and I had to change my mind. At 3:30 a.m. a local taxi driver who was supposed to pick me up to take me to the airport did not show up. After a few minutes I finally relented and downloaded the app I had deleted. And something unexpected, something very good happened. Continue reading

Suddenly, Lyft

Lyft1.jpgWhen I decided to delete that app it was without hesitation. I wanted to avoid sanctimony, but the point of making a show of my resolve was a simple message, i.e. that manners matter. Even though that app had been extremely useful to me over the past year, it was not so useful that I could ignore its founder’s behavior once I finally paid attention.

So now I am paying attention, and need a new app. And where better to start looking? I liked the message of that story, for reasons akin to my boyhood preference for Bjorn Borg over John McEnroe. I believe in disruption and I believe in winning, but if one is going to develop new rules of the game, then they should definitely be better rules that lead to better behavior. Continue reading

Deleting Uber

Uber.jpgShame on me for waiting until today to finally do it. I started hearing one year ago from friends and family about why they had decided to stop using Uber. But Uber was just then ramping up in Kerala, India and I found it compelling enough to abandon car ownership. When I saw the details recently on what a creep Uber’s founder and largest shareholder is, that should have been enough. But, it was this article that finally compelled me. Thanks to the New York Times reporter Kevin Roose for the perspective:

As Uber Stumbles, Lyft Sees an Opening, and Bites Its Tongue

It has been a rough, scandal-filled year for Uber. But don’t expect John Zimmer, Lyft’s president, to gloat about his competitor’s misfortunes. Continue reading

Sustainable Village Highlight: San Juan la Laguna, Guatemala

Hi, there! I’m Mari Gray, founder of artisan-made brand Kakaw Designs, based in Guatemala. After studying International Relations and Spanish at UC Davis and then working for several non-profits in Latin America, I became disillusioned and decided to focus on sustainable development through a social enterprise, partnering with talented artisan communities in Guatemala.

I feel incredibly fortunate to work with different artisan groups in Guatemala through Kakaw Designs (pronounced <kekao> like the cacao tree), an artisan-made brand I started about four years ago.  We currently work with several different artisan groups: two weaving, one embroidery, two teams of leathersmiths, and one silversmith; all to make our designs come to life.  But it was for a good reason that we started with the weaving cooperative Corazón del Lago in San Juan la Laguna, at Lake Atitlán.

Kakaw Designs Alliance logo

We would never have been able to launch Kakaw Designs without this group of forward-thinking, professional weavers from this small Maya village.  The community itself is exceptional, with sustainability clearly a focus through:

  • Use of natural dyes in textile production, also using local traditional techniques such as backstrap weaving and ikat designs  <<Learn more by watching our video>>
  • Organization of weavers in cooperatives or associations, where women work together and can therefore take larger orders and offer quality control
  • Up-and-coming development of community ecotourism, especially birding

Continue reading

Italian Curiosities In Lovely Cabinets

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The Biblioteca Angelica in Rome holds the first volume of Cicero’s “De Oratore” that was printed in Italy, in 1465, and a precious early edition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Credit Susan Wright for The New York Times

Odyssey’s Everlasting Allure

Illustration by Golden Cosmos

The title had me at Father, and again at Odyssey (Final, not so much). My first encounter with Homer was in an advanced literature course in my last year of high school. As a father now, with a son who found his way back home to another Ithaca, after his own odyssey, I could not resist jumping right into this story. But half way through, I stopped reading it. I will not say why I stopped, but I mentioned it to Amie, who I consult on matters of an aesthetic nature, especially when they intersect with matters of a familial nature, and she had already read it to the end. She said it was important to read it all the way through. I now understand why, and must recommend the same now, whether or not you have read the Odyssey:

A FATHER’S FINAL ODYSSEY

My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer’s epic and learn its lessons about life’s journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca. Continue reading

A Sensory Experience of South India, through words and photographs

Myself and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale volunteers of The Pepper House.

Myself and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale volunteers of The Pepper House.

I often struggle to formulate the words to describe transformative experiences. But now, looking at the film I developed from my month in India, waves of nostalgia and inspiration flutter to me. This post is the India I felt, saw, and loved for 30 days.

I have been fascinated by India since I was four years old, when my preschool teacher brought Sri Lankan rice and curry to class. The sensation of spicy food and description of spice plantations soaked deeply into my curious brain. Throughout my childhood I researched India, and fell even deeper in love, imagining my own body amidst the color and chaos. It was not until I arrived in college (this year), that I would have sufficient time for my first trip to India.

Though I studied Indian culture before arriving, no amount of reading or advice could have prepare me for what I would experience. Continue reading

I Hope To See You At Chan Chich Lodge

CCLWalk.jpgYesterday in these pages we welcomed you to visit the new website for and the actual place, Chan Chich Lodge. It bears repeating. This time by me personally. Please come here.

The snapshot to the right, taken on my phone just minutes ago on my morning walk, says the same. If you combine it with the last time I was walking these paths, you will see one more reason why I walk every morning.

I walk the roads and paths at Chan Chich every morning with the hope of seeing wildlife, and knowing that breathing the air here is better than doing so almost anywhere else on the planet. It is pure.

Between the puma-sighting snapshot and now I was in India. I have just arrived to Belize again and expect to be here for some time. I did not see any big cats this morning, but the birdlife is as abundant as ever, and their song just now provides very good cheer. If you need more information on why to come to Chan Chich, or how, or when, just let me know.

Mobitecture, The Wonders Of Mobile Architecture

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The Starlight Room – Raniero Campigotto

Thanks to Phaidon for its always-interesting new books for coffee table-pondering:

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Adaptable, intelligently put together, responsive to local conditions and able and willing to travel almost anywhere with ease – but enough about you, we’re here to tell you about mobitecture. What’s mobitecture we hear you ask? Well it’s mobile architecture and Mobitecture is the name we’ve smartly bestowed on it in our latest book.

Mobitecture looks at 250 examples of mobile architecture from around the world that enable the almost universal dream of upping sticks, moving somewhere and changing the way your world looks. The structures in it  roll, inflate, unfold, flat-pack or pop-up, slide on sleds and float across water in a book that brings together a spectacular collection of structures in which to revel, live, work, pause – or just simply escape.  Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In Shoreditch

strutAfter reading this, we had to at least visit the website:

Our journey began with a PASSION FOR HEALTHY EATING instilled by our Eastern Mediterranean heritage. As the family grew, home cooking revolved around grilling and roasting ingredients that are full of goodness, avoiding deep frying or saturated fats.

strut3And on closer look at Strut & Cluck, we are determined to visit the place itself, when we next get the chance:

The mum and family chef, Limor, started experimenting with turkey as a healthy alternative to chicken and a great source of lean protein. She quickly discovered the VERSATILITY AND FLAVOUR OF THIS SUPERFOOD. To achieve its distinctive flavour and fall-off-the-bone tenderness, the meat is marinated for 24 hours, then slow-cooked with our herb & spice blend. Continue reading

The Gulf Of California In Front Of Villa Del Faro

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Seth sent a snapshot he quickly took on his phone yesterday late morning at Villa del Faro. He had already told me the day before that they were seeing whales in the same vicinity of where the boats are in this photo, but he had not had his phone handy to snap a picture. So this would have to do. It looked as though a regatta was passing by. Continue reading

Villa Del Faro Morning Walk

vdfwalk1This post from yesterday reminds me of an early morning walk I took a few days ago with Seth and Jocelyn, when these two donkeys came wandering down the road. One seemed determined to get his head and shoulders portrait in the best possible light.

So I indulged him, and both seemed happy with a bit of nose-petting. No carrots, but never mind. When we continued our walk they started to follow, but then, nope. They wandered off in the opposite direction.

vdfwalk2Donkeys do that. A walk at dawn is the best way to know a place–at its quietest, and as per donkey logic, in the best possible light. I had arrived at Villa del Faro after a visit at Chan Chich Lodge, where dawn greets you with howler monkeys howling, and on a walk you will definitely hear a symphony of birdsong. At Villa del Faro you will hear birdsong, but different; at most it will be chamber music, more likely solos and duets. Continue reading