Wednesday, October 27, 2021

India Will Impress


There was something about this particular Kolkata window that seemed absolutely transcendent to me. The exposed brick, open shutter, the sheet, the bars. Every element in the image added up to something I could not explain, but could feel connecting deep within me. Perhaps the ten weeks of travelling around India by that point had something to do with it, as well as the way were travelling around India. We were embedding ourselves into society in a fundamental fashion, but from a perspective that allowed us the freedom to exit at any point should things go awry. That freedom allowed me to examine society with a micro lens while forever keeping a distance between us. I struggle to explain the way that distance impacted my feelings about India, or perhaps whether that distance means that I could never have a true understanding of India. If we can leave at any time, can our immersion be that complete?
Regardless, this window made me understand how India is so much more than the sum of its parts.


Learning how to pilot a running rickshaw in Kolkata.

Up close and personal with the scent of spices in a Kolkata alley.

If you had asked me which country I enjoyed the most on our round-the-world trip, while I was still actually in and experiencing a particular country, India would have been the last on that list on many occasions. It isn't that there is anything especially bad about India; it's more that there are so many tiny things that can be irritating, and more importantly, accumulative. Accretive. India is about managing how you respond to the little things. Not being able to let some things go can potentially obscure your enjoyment of the true wonder of India. It's kind of like in the hockey playoffs, all those seven-game series, and the commentators forever calling it a battle of attrition. But the rewards?

Leaving your backpack unattended at Kudle Beach has its consequences.


At first you're thinking, "What the heck?" After a while, it's, "Dammit! Not cows again!" and eventually, "Huh, India."

Going to visit the Taj Mahal. Wandering the fort in Jaisalmer. Exploring the markets in Kolkata. Hiking around Hampi. Sailing around the backwaters in Alleppey. Watching the sun set while your kids play in the Arabian Sea. These things are spellbinding, both in their sheer visual beauty as well as how the moment sits within the language of your family history.


Exploring between Kudle Beach and Gokarna's town beach.

That first look is without a word of exaggeration, breathtaking.

It's casual moments like this that catch you off guard. Your kids are listening to the audio guide at Mehrangarh Fort and you think, "Gosh, that's cute." Sometimes the magnitude of what's happening is lost on you. Sometimes it takes years to recognize the truth, and sometimes it hits you in the face when you frame it in the camera's viewfinder. What a day we had there.

What is less magnificent is some of that day to day stuff that you would not be used to dealing with at home. Rickshaw drivers hounding you for a fare. Touts wanting to guide you through a tourist attraction. Shopkeepers who are relentless in their efforts to lure you into a shop. Kids who are relentless in their efforts to lure you into a shop that will pay them commissions. Men who urinate somewhat openly in the streets. I could go on, but you get the idea. As long as you can learn to deal with that, India will quickly rise to the top of your favourite country list. The majority of kids, shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers, and urinating men are not remotely irritating. Well, the urinating men are, but most do their business in more appropriate settings. Or at least, discretely. Rickshaw drivers are trying to earn a living, and when they see a tourist, particularly a family of four, they see their earning potential rise dramatically. And that's what it boils down to - people just trying to earning a living. Yes, the one-hundredth call of, "Hello? Rickshaw?" in a single afternoon is often enough to force some regrettable comment out of your mouth, this is true. And yes, some people are just jerks, that's true everywhere, but most people are just trying to get by. 


My drawings of everyday people in India, and a couple of abstracts thrown in because it was part of a montage.

More often than not, you'll have someone curious about where you are from, what it's like where you live, and how do you like India? When you carry on a conversation, and really engage, it will be a rewarding experience that will provide a mental shield from the next, "Hello! One photo!"*

There is incredible life in India, incredible colour, and some truly incredible people. The distances within are vast, but with India's decent train system and your strong stomach, you can see a lot of the country. Push yourself beyond the Golden Triangle, and you will be rewarded with memories unlike any other.

The south is green, its air thick and warm. Rajasthan the land is the colour of straw, full of castles that hug the sky. Varanasi lives and breathes along the Ganges. Temples abound in the 14th century empire of Hampi. India is an experience like no other, and is worth any amount of time you can give it. 

A tower at Chittorgarh Fort in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan.
Outside the walls at Chittorgarh Fort.

A photogenic monkey at Chittorgarh.

Yes, the Taj Mahal is really something, but there's a lot more to India than this.

For instance, the Taj's poor cousin in Aurangabad.

By the end of our time in India, nearly three months, my mind was a little clouded by some of the negative experiences. But almost immediately after taking off from Kolkata on our way to Bangkok, the moments of pure joy rose to the surface, and I found myself longing to be back in the sweaty embrace of anywhere that was India. The food is a wonder, with restaurants, and hotels too throughout the country, serving up a fabulous array of dishes. The shops are full of colourful textiles and exceptional artisanal work. The history of India is on full display nearly everywhere you look. And the people. Give them a chance, and the good people will find you, and make you feel at ease.

Spice vendor and his son posing with us in Kolkata.


Learn to let the inconsequential go, and hold fast to the wonders. Incredible India will reveal itself all over.


*At first, the idea that someone would want a photo of themselves with us seemed funny and cute. But when you're going to be late for your bus, and the 47th person is saying, "One photo!" it can be a little much. Fun, for sure, but exhausting.

So many photos taken with so many Indian folks.


India's doors will impress.

My book chronicling our time in India.


Interior spread from The Happy Accident.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Moroccan-Inspired Front Steps

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is one amazing place, so it's no surprise that we made visiting there a priority when we went to Spain a few years ago. It is chock full of spectacular Moorish architectural embellishments and design that are visually spellbinding. The Moorish influences around southern Spain were so extraordinary, they inspired a visit to Morocco the following year. Needless to say, we were dazzled.

One of a million examples of plaster work at the Alhambra.

From the Alcazar in Seville, to a variety of stops in the underbelly of Fes, the remnants of old Moorish design are ever-present in this region. There are intricate tile designs known as zellij that are usually found on walls, but will also make up floors, ceilings, fountains, and more. Carved plaster designs grace archways and columns and walls. Pretty much any surface that a Moroccan craftsperson sees as under-served in the beauty department will get the full treatment. If there are unadorned surfaces anywhere, well, it must be because somebody just hasn't gotten around to it yet.

Floor somewhere in Morocco.

Doorway in a tight alley in Fes.

The Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

Meknes, a short train ride from Fes, also has a great deal of this type of artistry on display throughout the city.

A bonus shot from Meknes featuring the Moroccan triple threat: superb zellij tile work, plaster work, and calligraphy.

A wall in a madrasa in Meknes. Imagine showing me a pic of your trip to the mountains and trying to explain how a photograph doesn't capture the feeling of being there. That's how I feel here, that no photo can do these places justice. 


Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, of course is not going to be outdone in the presentation department, and went all out at the more modern Mausoleum of Mohammed V.


How about some more fountains?

El Glaoui Palace in Fes.

In a museum in Fes - I think Dar Batha, but I'm not entirely sure at the moment.

After reflecting on all that we'd seen on these two trips, we knew that we wanted to incorporate this kind of design into our home somehow. I even toyed with the idea of putting a fountain in our patio, but of course, our climate would not be kind to any intricate tile work or outdoor plumbing. But when our front steps needed redoing this summer, before the mail carrier fell through one of these days, I thought aha! Now's my chance. I sketched out a few ideas, showed them to my supervisor, and got down to work.

Staring at the doors of the Fes Royal Palace, ideas began to stir.

I knew right from the start though that there was no way I was doing tile work outdoors (or anywhere for that matter), and that I needed to curb my enthusiasm as I had no time (or skills) to recreate the Alhambra in my yard, so calm down right now if you think that's what this post is about.

I started searching out some ideas on the web, coming across a couple pics with designs that I could base my stair design on. It wasn't until preparing this post that I realized the photo I was using was of a door that I had taken a picture of. Looking back, I'm not sure how I ended up searching the web instead of my own photos. I think I must have been doing both, but anyways. Here's the pic that made me go, "Ah, that I can work with."

My photo of a door at the Alhambra.

A close up of another area to show how the aged tiles can look.

I actually started to draw the design out on the first riser before quickly realizing that a stencil would be much easier overall. I did this on some matte board, which is heavy enough to take some abuse and can be saved for future work.

The diamond pattern stencil was about a third of the length of the steps. I just sketched out the first third, moved the stencil, and repeated.

It's probably not worth noting that we went a good two weeks without front steps while I laboured over the design and rebuild. I tore the old steps out, then started to think about how I would do the design. Which is maybe a good thing as you don't want to spend a lot of your life creating something fabulous only to realize later that it doesn't fit into your stairs.


Once the design was sketched out on the primed riser boards, I got to work on the painting. I thought I had carefully chosen my paint colours, but apparently not, so I had to do some mixing to get my green colour the way I wanted it. 

Hard at work on the patio during those 35 degree days in July. The light of the sun looks like it's turning the patio blocks red hot. Supervisor took this pic from the comfort of her new day bed (completed during the hot days of June) which is wonderfully shaded on those hot, hot days.

With the design in place, it's just a matter of filling in the colours, and then deciding how far you want to take the trompe l'oeil effect to make realistic looking tiles.
On my first board, the top riser, I went all in. I was loving creating this look. When my supervisor got home from her other job, it was noted that we didn't want tiles that looked like they were ready to fall off the stairs today, so I had to tone it down going forward.
You can see in this pic how I mixed some blue in with my green to create a sort of translucent effect, giving the tiles a little more visual interest over a straight green.


I did this with the other colours too. I used a primer that was verging towards cream, but those bright, bold tile colours could not cover in one coat. I swished an uneven second and occasional third coat over top so that some white would still show through here and there.
My dog was an amazing cheerleader through all of this.


Here are a couple pics of the final risers, in place, today. One thing that is clear is that I'm going to have to spend a lot more time cleaning my steps than I ever did before. Every time it rains, the drops splatter dirt all over my nice stairs!
All the tiles look a little imperfectly "cut" so as not to look like wall paper, but emulate real hand-cut tile. The "grout" gets into all the little imperfections and nicks in the tiles, and little shadows are added here and there to give some depth.

I changed up the shades of the tiles a bit so that they are not all uniformly the exact same colour.

The supervisor had a wise idea to add some small red tiles into the mix.

Look at all that dirt on my new stairs!



Here are the completed stairs so you can see the entire design together. One thing I would do differently is make the white "tiles" that accompany the squares of blue, mustard, and green just a hair thinner. Maybe a millimetre or two. Not much, as a little would go a long way here.
Note that I was very careful to include the depth of the stair tread in the design layout. This way it appears that the tread is in front of a continuous wall of tile, which allows the tiles to visually flow from one riser to the next.
Overall, I'm really happy with how they turned out. And now when the supervisor gets home from work on a -35 day in January, she will be warmed by the memories of those wonderful spring days in Spain and Morocco.


Here are my photo galleries from Spain and Morocco.