Portraits from Nepal

In 2010, I took an unforgettable trip to Nepal.

It made me question everything.

Why I hadn’t been to the Himalayas before.

Why I was not writing my PhD on this place.

Why I had to leave so soon.

And one thing that struck me the most was the people.

Their warmth and openness.

All of these people were asked permission to be photographed.

And yet, I always wonder about the ethics of capturing people – and perhaps a part of their soul.

These are a few portraits of the people

Who I met along the way

I think of them, particularly in light of the tough year Nepal has had.

All photos are copyright rinamala.

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Venice: Beyond the postcard

Believe the hype. Venice is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible cities in the world. It is ridiculously beautiful, picturesque, photogenic.

There is pure fascination surrounding how the foundation of the city was built on wooden stilts, joining 118 islands through bridges and canals. But also how all of the houses, churches, palaces, monuments that were erected hundreds of years ago continue to stand after all this time.

With tourists literally pouring in: tumbling out of the train station onto its streets, lining up for (steeply priced) gondola rides, filling the terraces and piazzas and creating pedestrian traffic jams over archway bridges, there are moments when it feels like Disneyland. Like everyone there is a tourist, coming to be wowed, entertained and ‘serviced’.

Except, Venice is still a city with around 60,000 people living in the historical part. White collars carry their briefcases to work. University students eat packed lunches on benches. Teenagers hang out and tag walls. Children are walked to school. Grocery shoppers traverse bridges with food trolleys. Transporters deliver equipment and machinery by boat.

In a quest to find a restaurant ‘with some locals’ I crossed two office workers on their lunch break who rang an unmarked, unassuming doorbell. When they were buzzed open, my mouth gasped to view a huge, bustling, full restaurant within. The suit-clad gentleman looked at me and closed the door behind him.

Of course, Venetians, and others who live in Venice need, let me repeat, need, to create spaces for themselves that are free of peering tourists with cameras in hand, looking for that perfect capture. An opportunity to live a relatively normal daily life in a city which is a live, walking museum 365 days of the year. There is the facade that you see. But there is more to it. You find windows, entrances, doorways, gardens protected with fences and bars. Spaces are created within spaces that are hidden from the roaming wanderer.

Thus, we need to acknowledge that there is a sad reality as well. It is difficult to live in Venice. The prices of apartments are soaring, thus many migrate to other places. Further, the buildings are incredibly difficult to maintain, restore and inhabit – leaving many run down or abandoned. Although establishments receive tourist dollars through the services they provide, competition is steep and there remain limited job opportunities for other sectors. While large development projects such as the MOSE are trying to combat the city’s sinking, they come with their own challenges.

Walking the streets of Venice makes one reflect on the past. One witnesses history, archaeology, architecture and art through the city structure itself. All embedded in a certain culture and tradition which is difficult to imagine let alone replicate. Amidst this preservation of the past, it becomes all the more interesting to observe other, more contemporary forms of creative expression within the city such as graffiti, street art and political banners.

For the perfect, picturesque photos of the city and its monuments (which are truly impressive!), google Venice and check out galleries or buy a postcard. The photos are true to form. It is that beautiful.

However, this post represents a small attempt to capture some of that ‘ordinary daily life’. Things that are perhaps a bit ‘less pretty’ but no less beautiful, real and relevant.

Baku: Architecture, diversity and conversation

Prior to travelling to Baku, Azerbaijan, I reached out to (relatively well-travelled) colleagues and friends as well as online networks to scope out people who had been to the place, who could offer reflections on it and suggestions of how to explore it. I was rather surprised to find very few.

After returning and telling people that I just came back from a trip to Baku, I was amazed at how many took a moment to tilt their head before asking where it exactly was. So as people asked about my impressions, I thought about how best to describe a place that until that moment had not been on their radar. A city of contrasts. Sounds cliché, I know. But here’s a small glimpse of a few of those contrasts, particularly evident (to me) through the architecture, diversity (particularly of women and their dress) and forms of conversation.

Old historic buildings come face to face with expansive, artistic, modern forms of architecture.

Old city and new flames

Old city and new flames

Sometimes the architecture is such a blend of eras, generations and styles that one type of architecture is literally built ‘on top’ of another.

I was fascinated by the diversity of the women, and the particular contrasts in the way they dressed and how this is linked to culture, religion and beliefs but also cosmopolitan fashion trends and styles.

A woman watches over her children

A woman watches over her children

Conference garb

Conference garb

Portrait of the next generation

Portrait of the next generation

The use of green, public spaces throughout the city. Where people came to meet friends and family to have a conversation. Where couples sat on benches and reflected on the future. And where families came to play.

However, sometimes in very vibrant social spaces, we also witness the ‘death of conversation’ as we become reliable on smartphones as ‘friends’ or ‘companions’ – enabling people to have conversations with themselves, or with others through a virtual space.

The death of conversation

The death of conversation

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Every single person is on the phone in this kitchen

A park bench phone call

Have you ever been to Baku? I would love to hear your thoughts on the place if you have.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

A beautiful day hiking up to Dog Mountain in British Colombia is a stark reminder of the nature that lingers often in our backyard, unbeknownst to us.

Travelling to places we once called home forces us to rediscover a place with new eyes, open to explore areas that were less visible to us when we were bogged down with the daily routine of school, work and other (often fixed) activities. Sometimes we need to take those travelling holidays in the places we think we know in order to break free from old assumptions of what is.

The wildness of the Canadian outdoors, the density of the forest and the wide-open landscapes are something deeply unique to that place in the world: a small tribute to the West Coast.

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Architecture, glass and edges

There was a time where the height restrictions on buildings were pretty strict in order to ensure that the mountain view was not obstructed. Those have since become a lot more ‘lax. However, it continues to amaze me how such strong geometric lines and edges, greenish-blue tinted glass and modern elements of architecture are able to blend in with the city’s bodies of water, mountain views and natural colours. Having said that, the city would definitely benefit from lower buildings, less cranes and more clear perspectives of its nearby natural surroundings.

The natural world in the city

My last post reflected on how (wo)men engage in our natural environments, particularly in the mountains, using the example of the Chamonix Mont Blanc valley.

But when we come (back) to our urban environments, how do we reconcile with the benefits of a city life with our desire to (still) engage with nature? What is the relationship between the natural world and the urban world?

When we think about the cities we live in and travel to, a symbol of high quality of life is often linked to greenery, access to nature and how this is embedded in a city’s lifestyle. Often this may be part of a city planner’s job – to integrate more green spaces into a cityscape. Thus we find ‘signs of the natural world’ in the city. Potted plants, trees, grass, flowers, all (deliberately) adapted to our urban environment.

We have built cities ‘on top’ of nature, covering up our earth, soil, sand and mud with cement to walk, run, bike and drive on. We have imposed cement on it, to constrain it, limit it and prevent our feet from ever touching it in a city space. But sometimes nature (often in the shape of unwanted weeds) breaks through these constraints, these concrete cracks and finds a way to breathe, find light and life despite us.

However, the conflict is ongoing. We like nature in the city but it needs to be limited. Confined to the ideals of natural beauty which we define ourselves. Unruly weeds that break these borders and find a way past the concrete are often punished and destroyed.

Killing weeds