Valparaiso and Santiago

In Ode to ValparaisoPablo Neruda writes about Valparaiso’s perennial chaos and ugliness, that stood through time and the thousands of ships that passed by for centuries. This port city with small colorful houses lining up the hills – looks as disorderly today as it has been for ages.  After the opening of the Panama canal in early 20th century – Valparaiso as a port, slipped away in its stature, and as the customary halt for ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  But as Neruda says, the colorful houses and street art and a few functioning fulniculars remind us of the heydays gone by.  Charles Darwin in his diaries note several insects linked to this city during his voyage in the Beagle, which ultimately influenced his Origin of Species.  Today, the Chilean Naval HQ and the constant flow of students – ensure its perpetual relevance and youth.  I stopped by Valapariso on my way back from a visit to a power plant nearby.  Yes, I am fortunate to visit such places in a “day’s work”.  In the few hours I had – I tried to soak in this place as much as I possibly could.  As a former gateway to the south and to the new world, the port is still vibrant with lines of dock equipment and ships hemming the shoreline.

In this maiden visit to Latin America, I was politely corrected early on – that I should not use America as the byword for the US.  Deep rooted nationalistic sentiment is pervasive and people here, and rightfully so, will remind those not mindful enough, that “they” in the southern hemisphere are Americans too.  And indeed, there is character, culture, and diversity that is worth giving its dues.  It is more than just their shared love for life and football. Here in Chile it is of course – Colo colo vs. Universidad de Chile ( the club has nothing to do with the Uni any more) that runs the football fever and occupies people’s mindshare.  Santiago, compared to Valparaiso may lack in character – or perhaps the modern urban plague has hit hard to unify and harmonize the look and feel, such that parts of the manicured Las Condes and Providencia, resemble Polanco in Mexico City or even Gurgaon in India – gated communities and large multi apartment complexes punctuated by lovely villas.  Chile (and it shows in Santiago), is a developed and economically progressive place compared to most of Latam. The Chicago boys had a hand in it to set it up in the 70s, and even today the business community is very bullish about this place. It is a controversial topic no doubt but that’s a topic for another day.

The old city with its fish and vegetable markets still retain the dirt, smell, and the feel of the developing world – of chaos but also of freshness, where everything is still organic, and markets are synonymous to conversations and meeting platforms. The old city also has a plaza or a city square built in European style filled with locals, hawkers, and chess players.  The square is surrounded by a worn down old church and commercial buildings, such as the old stock exchange that are remnants from the Spanish colonial times. Many of these are being brought down to make way for new shopping malls and other outfits. Progress has its own ways to plough through history.

In my travels to such foreign lands, food is a big part of my exploration. Through food, I believe one can tell quite a bit about a society.  It was obvious, rather quickly, that there was nothing unique about traditional Chilean cuisine.  The ceviche is ubiquitous but it is mostly made in Peruvian style. Chile’s relations with its neighbors, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia have been strained in the past, and this is not just political — people are sentimental about it, although the more educated and worldly, express it with a grain of self-deprecating wit. But Chile unlike many other countries is not stuck in the past but is constantly re-inventing itself.  People do not mind being called a copycat of the US as long as it is symbolic of moving forward in prosperity.  Such pragmatism is noteworthy. With its market-based economy, it is in much better position compared to the once developed Argentina, or the corruption laden Brazil.  I know I digressed. So, finally, desperate to find local Chilean food, I ended up in Borago, which is rated in the world’s top 50 restaurants. (Not to rub it – but I guess Peru has three restaurants in the top 50). Chef Rodolfo Gunzman is creative and tried his best to bring indigenous ingredients – mostly local Chilean items that grew in the rocks to prepare several exotic courses bringing out flavors that are quite distinctive. Pictures are below:

In the recent years, Chilean wine has become quite popular. After France, Italy, and Spain, Chile ranks fourth in global exports. The topography with mountains along the coast and another range running along the Argentine border creates a microclimate that supports the reds of Maipu and the whites of Casablanca valley. I took the wine tasting tour as part of the standard city tour but it was deeply underwhelming compared to those in France, Tuscany or even the commercial Napa. But if one can get a private tour to a place like Concha y Toro, it can well be a very memorable experience.

In large cities, I try my best to go off the mainstream, to find the sub-cultures that reside in parallel worlds. I was happy to connect with a photographer who does freelance for BBC these days and was connected once to our common ground – the ICP in New York.  We went to some of parts of the rough Bohemian area, which has a bursting street art scene. Lots of paid commission along with the usual tagging and graffiti.

It was interesting to find that there are quite a few British expats here, including my photographer friend. Some say that it is the sea that brought them; others believe that given the animosity between Chile and Argentina – the Falklands dispute resulted in some friendly overtures. Clouts against a common enemy.  I ran into a small group of English expats – in Wonderland cafe in the Belavista area. Most of them worked for the BBC South American news service and knew my photographer friend. They were dressed in tropical coats and Panama hats, with tanned faces coated with days of sweat – an image out of the Raj brought to life.  Life for foreign correspondents is a feast or famine business and it was obvious that they were enjoying now, given that the wildfires that consumed the news have gone for a while. It is now time for afternoon tea in a languid, lazy Sunday — filled with hearty laughs with your lady friends.

My stay, in contrast, was a rather busy workweek, looking for a couple of days over the weekend to sneak out to Buenos Aires. It turned out to be very different city from Santiago. Will write about that soon. Meanwhile – here are the pictures from Santiago and Valparaiso.

Budapest – My Intro

How does it feel when you land on a new place?  A foreign land.  What gets evoked? And when you leave, what do you take away? How different is it? Pondering on these questions, revisiting them, looking at old pictures — are all useful ways to live and internalize these trips and sojourns. With lives so consumed by the pressures of livelihood, and the changes enforced, it is easy to forget a vacation like a fleeting dream. Yes it happened but it did not make any difference.

I visited Budapest recently.  Eastern Europe has longed intrigued me. It has always been an enigma.  Behind the iron curtain, Eastern Europe was truly foreign.  Indeed, growing up, I hardly knew anyone from that area or one who ever been to that area.  Not surprisingly, it felt exotic in a rustic manner.  Every few years or so they would perform in Olympics or the World Cup usually putting together a very strong performance. They always gave an impression that they had the ability to punch above their waist. Once the cold war was over, the gradual exposition was equally intriguing. There was an aristocracy once with splendid buildings, that got smothered under the cloud of communism.  Really? Along with the communist drab, there was a history of art and architecture.  Hungary, particularly is such a marvel.  In many ways it is not like any other communist country; it had a lighter touch from the communists and enjoyed (if I may say) broader autonomy and discretion that some of its surrounding neighbors.  So what was it like.  What was it under the Austro-Hungarian rule and what happened during the communists and what is it today.

My interest in Hungary started with my early days of stamp collection, I had pages (yes pages) of stamps from Hungary.  My inheritance from my maternal uncle was partly responsible but then the other part was collected as gifts from friends and family over many birthdays.  Clearly Magyar Posta had posted a mark in my memory.  Then there was football or soccer as it is known here.  The football that mattered in Hungary dates back to the 50s and 60s.  I heard the folklore from my grandfather and father on Puscas and the big deal when they defeated England.  Today, it was quite interesting to see that victory plastered on a giant wall in a parking lot in Budapest. Where can one find an event such immortalized that is over half a century old. It happens if there is a poverty of achievements or if it was truly a defining moment. It was clearly the latter that reinforced the Magyar identify after the brutal war as the nation was picking up its pieces.

Well, my trip to Budapest was thus filled with anticipation and lots of speculation.  I was eager to get there.  The evening I was flying, there were attacks in Munich, but thankfully my connection was through Frankfurt, which was not that bad.  In fact I was moved to an earlier flight and arrived an hour before my scheduled arrival in Budapest.  The landmass of Hungary is connected to the European mainland so it is not that alien – yet as the plane was landing it was strikingly different.  The houses were much smaller and more austere in the countryside. The green pastures were plentiful.  Large open spaces.  And clearly there was no modern look as one would see landing over Frankfurt, Schipol, or Munich.  The airport is small but modern. It was filled with people and some very pretty models getting ready for the Formula 1 next day.    While I was not able to go much into the countryside, the short 25-30 mile ride to Hungaroring for the Formula 1 race on the Sunday (August 31) gave me a glimpse what a suburb and the sub-suburban looked like and by stretch of imagination – what a rural setting would be.

There are some major developments that took place in the last 20 years in Budapest.  Just after the end of the cold war, as I was told, the capitalists came in and there were a slew of quick investments.  In many cases they messed up with the architecture.   The lure of quick lucre is enticing.  Clearly the Marriott hotel where I stayed most of my days in Budapest qualifies as one.  Standing on the Danube on the Pest side, it is an absolute abomination compared to the beautiful buildings that line across the river bank.  Just cross over the Chain Bridge, another marvel built in the late 19th century by Szechenyi and you will get that loud and clear.  As my local guide and friend Zsusha pointed out – even the modern Sofitel hotel somehow was able to blend, but not the Marriott.

Looking into the city, one can’t stay away from the architecture.  It is everywhere.  The last day after several days of exploring and feeling the city and its people, the ruin bars and the hipsters, I was at the Boscolo, that houses the gorgeous New York Cafe.  I got transported to an imaginary past to absorb the lovely raw beauty of the city.  Lines of ornate houses. Indeed the end of the 19th century was the glorious period of prosperity.  The Belle Epoch in France, the Edwardian era in Britain and the glorious days in Hungary before the world completely fell apart and changed in the 1910s.  On the back of the industrial revolution Budapest became one of the prominent centers with a brand new metro system.  The Line 1 which goes down the Opera to the Heroes Square still has the old world charm.  At the turn of the 20th century, every country in Europe was looking for its own identity.  Budapest was no different.  It set ambitious plans – with the metro – with the lines of architecture.  In the early 1900s there were so many writers in Budapest that as John LuKacs in his book Budapest 1900 writes – “there were so many writers that they complained that their readers turn out to be other writers”.  My dessert that night in Budapest took place sitting in the mezzanine level and watching over the swarms of people seated at the central hall.  For a moment – thinking about a hundred years ago – who would have thought that the place would still be there under a different cloak, with a solitary Indian native looking at their ghosts.  Hundred years from now, who knows who will watch the ghosts that I leave behind.

My morning ride through the streets of Budapest met with the city that has just slept. Yes – the parties go to the wee hours of the morning when men and women strut and duel with their shadows to return to their abode.  The taxi was speeding through the empty streets. I waited for my flight back to the west – first to Frankfurt and then to DC.  As I left I kept wondering of the guy I met one day in the Irish bar.  While I was clearly nostalgic and talking about preservation, he was tired of the old and wished Budapest developed, with better jobs, and better pay so that he does not have to work in Switzerland. While I was taking a romantic view dipping into the nostalgia of the glory once this city may have, he was quite tepid about my enthusiasm.  I then realized on my way back that an outsider’s eye will never be the same as that of the local. What is beauty to me may not be of much value to those who have to make a living out of it.  I sensed the same when I was in Istanbul a few years back.  And perhaps, thats why I am drawn to these places.  Who knows when they become so modern or disgustingly touristy that it departs from the roots of its past.  For instance, one has to look for those remnants in places like New York.  For now, it was comforting that I was able to gaze through the place, looked into the myriads of houses that are over a century old, people carrying on with their lives, each house with its own story.

 

Budapest’s Ruin Bars and Nightlife

It all began with Szimpla.  It is quiet by the day but as night falls and gets deeper into the midnight hour, this place is all jam packed.  Long lines and security marshals shepherd the scores of people who want to get a taste of the Pest night scene.  Szimpla was the first of the ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish quarter, I was told, went through a renewal over the last few years.  What was once the center of Jewish life in Budapest until World War II, faded away like many things in the 20th century.  Despite the fact that the Jewish community was restricted and confined outside the old city wall, here in Budapest, compared to other places in Europe, the Hungarian Jews were much more integrated into the Hungarian society.  The architecture of the old Synagogue that stands nearby combined several elements from other cultures.  After the WW2 the quarter was decimated and ended up in ruins.  Yes, literally.  Some of the old houses still stand with Jewish symbols, but they clearly speak of an era that has seen better days.  Needless to say the Jewish history of this place is quite complicated.  The German Nazis were never here, so the atrocities and evacuation came mainly from Hungarian anti-Semites.  The history was no less brutal and the mass exterminations were quick and extensive.

Enough of this morbid backdrop.  Fast forward to Szimpla.  It started a new concept of converting the ruined buildings into bars. The bar itself has got thousands of antiques and artifacts from broken TVs, cars, mirrors – you name it. All blended to exude beauty, art, and expression of revival; of making something nice out of a dilapidated and derelict past. My guide and friend Zsuzsa walked me through Szimpla’s journey in brief while I kept sipping Fröccs, a spitzer made from wine and soda, that Zsuzsa treated me to.  She said, “Szimpla started as an underground experiment but then it caught on and others followed.”  Now ruin bars are set feature in the Jewish Quarter –  the area bordering Erzsébet krt. to Kazinczy utca.  As this area revived and gentrified again in the 21st century, sure enough we witness an influx of the Jewish community as well – mostly centered around the two prominent synagogues.  I had lunch at the Spinoza Cafe during my stay.  The cafe manager was an emigre from Israel and the owner from Holland.  What brought them back is a question I did not ask, but it was clear that they brought some character.  They had interest in classical music and the walls are all decorated with interesting art and memorabilia.  It was interesting to learn that the ruin bars are now under spotlight with the new right wing in power in Hungary.  Revelry and partying is not everyone’s cup of tea, but in Budapest this right-wing opposition is viewed more as a nuisance than meaningful position.  The underground movement has become mainstream.  But the cat and mouse with the authority is on.

What is behind the success of the ruin bars or the nightlife in general here in Budapest?  And nightlife is serious.  It goes on till sunrise on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  The biggest factor I noticed was that this bar/night scene is scripted not just with party-going tourists. In fact these places come to life with the locals.  The vibe, the color, the conversations are as local as much as they were touristy. But always more local than touristy, I would say. This is where the people hang out – local artists, young professionals, and even some middle aged people. During my stay if there is one place where I came again and again, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, as well as late night, it was this little strip within the quarter.  Each bar one is so different and the level of thought that has gone into converting junk into art is indeed remarkable.  One such place was the large building, Doboz, opposite Barack & Szilva with a huge courtyard with a large tree jutting out in the middle.  It is as if the tree is growing out of the building.  The facade outside the building is still dilapidated but has vibrant lighting that electrifies the street.  There was another with a giant screen displaying silent movie footages of 1950s/60s Paris (or maybe Budapest) and other cities to eclectic music.  Reminded me of the visual media exhibits from MOMA in New York.  Another bar was built on the grounds of the old electrical engineering museum.  I am not kidding. Indeed an Electrical Engineering Museum. Old circuit breakers, transformers and motors are all over and tons of Neon lights that are lighted once or twice a year. Sadly, it was not one of those lucky days for me. I was told they can’t afford the electricity bill to keep it lighted everyday. 

The concept of using junk and antiques to decorate is not just limited to the ruin bars. There were a couple of cafes that were all decked up with antiques – from communist era artifacts to defunct vacuum tube TVs, radios, and old phones.  In a way it made me feel an antique myself – as I saw my past unfold before me.  I would recall our first TV in the 70s and then the graduation to color TVs in the late 80s, VCRs and my grandfather’s tube radio that took an entire table.  These were gadgets that I grew up with and now they are all displayed as antiques.  I was introduced to an antique camera store near the synagogue.  The store was filled with Soviet era cameras – Zenit and FED and the East German Praktika.  I was tempted to build a collection – but then I don’t collect when I won’t use much. So it was better to get a glance and let it be. 

As I picked up the pieces through my past and present, I felt there was an overarching theme that consumed me in Budapest.  From my conversations, I learned there is a growing recognition of what sustainable growth is. The de-growth conference, which was under preparation during my visit was meant to question the very premise of growth – and the cost thereof.  As I write, the conference is over – and I wonder how that was. Did we question how much materials and resources we truly need? Do we view growth through very narrow limits and myopic vision? If we expand then are we bound to get a different if not opposite answer?

The concept of converting ruins or even old building into hip fun places is not new.  It has caught on and people told me Berlin would be another place to check out.  Over the years – I remember Tate Modern and the local Baltimore restaurant built on old power plants site. There are places that are stripped down and other built on top of the past.  In their own ways, people conduct renewal in their own ways. In Budapest – while renewal is at a grand scale and ruin bars are a unique expression.  Whenever my next visit – I will be curious what I see they become. Will they be in ruins? Or will they be also going through their cycle of wash-rinse-repeat.

 

Mexico

My trip to Mexico city was long overdue. There are many reasons to visit Mexico apart from the obvious reason of being so close to the US. The food, the culture, the history are all major draws. But for some reason that did not happen until last December. Finally, it was in the last two years when I began to explore color photography that I got interested in Mexico. More specifically after talking to Alex Webb who mentioned that there is something about the color of light in those places that hits the stomach, I had my eyes and my planner set on Mexico.  Finally, muting all the voices that come up around security and other concerns – I made the trip.  Not knowing the language is a disadvantage.  Also being careful on where to tread is the smart thing to do in such places especially if you are working in the streets in an unknown place. I was lucky to find Alex Coghe who is an accomplished street photographer to provide a one-on-one photo experience.

For two days I worked with him going through the streets of Mexico city. Alex impressed me in various ways. As an Italian, he bears the feeling for light that is characteristic among Italian photographers – something that you can get when you see the work of Vittorio Storaro or Paolo Pellegrin.  You see in the films of Fellini.  So during the two days I was thrilled to get into the spaces where there was some play going on with light.  Alex mentioned he is deeply inspired by Daido Moriyama – not just the high contrast images of electric proportions but also when it come to the style of working.  He uses a compact camera to get close. He was using his Leica X2 where he could and a Ricoh compact camera in more intimidating places – very similar to Moriyama’s style of using a compact to shoot in Shinjuku area of Tokyo.  Shooting is fast, pre-visualization is the key to composition.

Alex is a very kind person and his friendly nature made my experience quite fruitful – not to mention the two restaurants he took me.  Here he writes about the experience and the photos posted from the food excursion.  The other aspect of Alex’s photography was his interest in blending urban elements into the pictures, which I found very intriguing.  Urban elements blended with how people go about doing their daily business bring out the modernity of life in a city. This is in the core of why I love cities and what I try to capture in the street expressions. Modernity is in a way how the new combines with the old. Decay and decadence not in just the structures and the visuals but also in the psyche and beliefs – largely all man made.  But at the same time the underlying spirit to survive and thrive and prosper – indulge in arts and culture, work, raise children, and find happiness amidst all odds.  A modern city also defines neighborhoods in their own way – with its own flavor, color, and sounds, which I saw from – Colonia Roma to Zona Rosa to Polanco.  Things changed exuding their own distinct character.  In short, an anarchy, an organized chaos of contradictions. In that sense Mexico city held its ground and made it a fascinating place to go around.

I cannot write about Mexico city without mentioning street food.  Cocinita Pibil in its fullest expression with the bone or in a Tamale was my favorite. So was the Taco Villemelon which had pork, pig skin, etc.  With Pulque, it is a just a greasy, tasty escapade – without which your Mexico city vacation is incomplete.  After food comes the need for music.  My last night was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel. Their night club Bar Jorango was quite entertaining.  The two Mariachi bands – a bunch of guys singing popular number numbers in Spanish that I did not understand and then a bunch of middle aged women playing a rock version of Mariachi as well. Overall, a nice excursion to feast all my senses.

One of my photography teachers at ICP – Joe Rodriguez advised me not to mix photography with family travel. I have been fortunate that I am able to take these trips as pure exploration of my photography.  Relaxing and fulfilling.

 

London and Dublin

Taking photos in London has always been challenging to me. London deserves special attention. And like New York there is so much to do in the city that if photography is clubbed with anything else, there is no way one can do justice to anything. In the end I am left with an unfilled desire and then the pictures don’t speak much. I have been to London many times, and yet not been able to take enough pictures. Hardly anything. It is hard to capture on the go. There is this rich history that is alive in those iconic sites. There is this huge body of splendid architecture from the old and absolutely stunning modern situated side by side – the Inns of Court along with modern architecture. There are streets and buildings that bear the names from the classical English texts – Dickens and Conan Doyle. There is cricket and the hallowed halls of Lords. The tube, Foyles. There are people of all kinds – interesting characters – and just too much happening to keep focus and attention. Time is always short and whether you get enough of the museums or lager and lime – well – it is just way too much. I wish I am able to live in London for a length period of time to take some pictures – some day maybe. The easiest way to get a quick overview is to take a walking tour, which is what I did.

The city stirs up my familiar colonial psyche that has always looked upon the mother country and its capital as the hallowed destination. Wrapped in the fables passed on my grandfather and the exemplary standards set by the British, there is a sense awe that permeates even before I get there. With a sense of reluctant but deep appreciation, I feel I owe this land for the language and everything that has allowed me to walk about in the international arena and also filled in with the curiosity of this once all-powerful country of the planet. This quest to find all of these – to discover – comes in direct conflict of taking pictures. For London is not Paris. London is vibrant, noisy, in many ways a filthy city that is on the move. The old charm is not really so much distinct like in Paris. Much of the city had to put a modern veneer during Olympics. There is no romance that I could find on the surface. It is not like The Kinks singing Waterloo Sunset. The London cabs are decked with advertisements these days. St. James and Picaddily look like Times Square. There is not much of a difference I see between cities these days as a matter of fact. On the surface yes, but then in the next layer – there is nothing much. Even the street acts were the same elsewhere – the woman plastered with silver paint feigning to be a statue – the parkours and street rappers – hard to tell whether they were from East London or from Bronx. But I am sure, beneath this layer there is a huge difference – and to discover that will give a lot of delight – but I have not been able to get it. The quest remains. Overall – a nice family union – meeting cousins, uncles, and aunts — just the right way to shift to the next leg in Dublin.

Dublin was mostly all indoors with an occasional walk to Grafton street. To me if you love literature, this is the city for you. The literary walking tour was the highlight where two actors banter and enact scenes from different iconic books – from Waiting for Godot to Joyce. Joyce permeates through and through – mainly because he has immortalized Dublin as a city. Several tours through the city – even a luncheon at the The winding stairs – a bookstore and a restaurant was quite interesting. Apart from that – a lot of Guinness. Strolling in Temple Bar. The visit to Trinity college was interesting – especially, the Book of Kells. Missed going to other parts of the country. Maybe next time.

In Search of Horse Tail – Yosemite NP

This trip was my “firsts” in many ways. First trip to Sierras in the west, first photographic workshop spanning 3-4 days, and first time venturing into the domain of landscape photography in a dedicated way – might I dare say in a contemplative way. It was a thrilling experience with Gary Hart and Doug Otto. Gary, who led the workshop knows Yosemite extremely well. And his photography skills in Yosemite could only be matched with his friendly and patient demeanor which made my first experience with him truly a memorable one. Not to forget all the lovely people I could spend the days with.

My trip began with exactly “not doing” things that all books and wise people recommend. While I had my basic camera gear, once I reached there I realized that I had some other basic stuff missing like – how to protect myself and my gear from rain. Also, I did not do any research on the park or the place. My knowledge of the place was literally limited to the few pictures of Ansel Adams I have admired. But that did not take away from my thrill – automatically it lit up the curiosity of a child in me that many photographers (like Eddie Soloway) would say needs to be generated to cultivate the art of seeing in photography.

So with this curiosity I quickly learned within the first few hours that one of the prized pictures from Yosemite in winter is that of the Horse Tail. Gary has his own prize which seems unreal until I learned the history how photographers in Yosemite have spent countless hours to capture that light since Galen Rowell popularized it 1970s. I was also pleasantly surprised that it happens only in the period we were there. What can strange luck ask for – being in the right place at the right time!

We ended up not having the full red fire on the Horse Tail. But there was some glow and I was quite pleased with that. The weather was spectacular for photography, which was learning for me as well – blue sky days are not really my friend. Clearing storms, streaming magic light through the clouds, controlling exposure and reading light, playing with composition, contemplating over what I saw to make a composition, and getting comfortable with the digital workflow (although I had a bunch of really cool B&W medium format, which I might scan and post later) were just a few of the take-aways.

More than anything else, the biggest take-away was this. I have been struggling to figure out what should I photograph more – how do I take the path to get and develop a voice of my own – how do I see the world and map into a two-dimensional picture – how do I pre-visualize. And I could not figure out a pathway towards getting anywhere. I feel that I have got some direction on that. All these apply to streets as wells as in nature photography. And that is the biggest joy which lives with me as I look forward to my next workshop. Who knows when I can make that happen! But I can’t wait too long.