Working Out My (International) Travel Stories

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Traveling is a sensory overload.

I'm winding down on my international tour through Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. In a few days, I'll be back with family in Bangladesh trying to build a whole 'nother life on the subcontinent (though I'm sure my compulsions -- book buying, tea drinking, and writing about people in public -- will still stay much the same).

Drawing of Athens as seen from Mt. Lycabettus -- my phone overheated and so I took out my pens and sketched till there was no more light (thankfully I have been carrying red, black, and blue ink pens!)
On this trip, I've been drawing more than writing, photographing more than drawing. And each medium is so different. Drawing resonates with my emotions more than my eye; photographs give me a realistic slice of scenery, but not the depth (emotionally or physically). Writing just feels stubborn. How do you portray the visual and emotional in one line? How do you honor the place while not essentializing/stereotyping it or its people? I've been caught in the trap of overgeneralizing in my early drafts -- trying to capture the details in a very general way. Thus it's been my self-appointed writing assignment these past few weeks to capture the feeling of a place rather than its contours. I'm starting with a place that's in my near memory from just a few days ago in Istanbul. Stay tuned for more.

P.S. I'm also including two drawings that I've done on this trip -- both from amazing places in Greece. These pictures are straight from the notebook, so apologies in advance for the weird angles (neither, after all, is a photographic representation!). I think that they do well to capture the emotional energy of those places.

Drawing of a pebble beach against cliffs and the Aegean sea on Agistri in Greece, using pen and colored pencil.
She wasn't pretty like women you'd see standing on pedestals in the museums with their elegant robes draped just-so. She had hair that wound around her square face and eyes so dark and vacant that in the dim light they appeared pupil-less, staring past you. I stooped to look at her. The carved line of her cheekbone cast a shadow across the dark water below. Her head was upside down and, a few meters away, another version lay tipped on its side.

We had wound around the corridors - past the wishing spot and down a set of slippery stairs - to greet her. I turned to look over my shoulder at a patch of unlit columns, catching a glimpse of some fish encircling them as another amateur photographer's flash went off. I inhaled and turned back to her, her stone expression lit up and darkened as people drifted by. Many just went for the picture, a single burst, then power-walked back onto the path. I lingered. Then the next wave of paying guests arrived.

I was reminded of how often I've heard her name: Medusa. Snake-haired and turning people to stone (hence why she's been placed upside down/on her side). When I had safely returned to the dry and well-lit cafe area, I became aware of my shallow breathing. I was surprised at how much the eeriness had affected me; many tourist attractions lose their power due to the onslaught of people and gimmicks. The Basilica Cistern, underground and filled with dark corners, retained its well.

From being here, I've come to know a basic history of historical architecture: cisterns supplied the Ottomans with water before they installed pipe systems. I've come to know that several ancient empires had a lot in common, including their pantheon of gods. I've come to know that the way a few people find out about this place is through Dan Brown's Inferno. It makes me curious about how we put together the parts and pieces of our knowledge - popular literature, high school history classes, signs in museums - and reminds me of how terribly limited my own knowledge is from these sources.

It's hard to stumble upon these things in an American life. You have to want to know, then move from there. A day later, I stumbled into an English language bookstore and took a shot.