This place could be beautiful

Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

— “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith in Waxwing via Hannah Rosefield

Photo: Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Purple sunset shells



On the beaches of Vancouver were scattered hundreds of iridescent, opalescent purple shells. From a distance, they looked like shards of the sky deposited by the purplish sunset. Close up, you could see the delicate violet gradations and subtle shades.

They attracted me, so I picked them up and collected some in my pocket, and took them back to the room where I was staying. I envisioned handing them out to the friends and family I’d see the next day.

But, when I looked at them the next day, they were dull and chalky. Taken out of their environment, they lost their luster.

In the end, I returned them back to the beach, where they could once again soak up the color of the sunset.

Jodhpur and Astonished Bewilderment


Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.

The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.

Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.

Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.

I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.

Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.

My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.

Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautman said, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”

It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.

Amor fati: The anti-carpe diem


My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Why I Am So Clever,” Ecce Homo (written 1888, published 1908)

Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not.

— Oliver Burkeman, “No Regrets? Why not?,” The Guardian (2015)

Iranian Mirrorwork: Contemporary and Historical

Two years ago, I traveled through Iran for 10 days, and parts of the trip still jump out at me at unexpected moments. I recently visited “Infinite Possibility,” a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, a distinguished artist with a career spanning over 50 years and the first Iranian artist to be featured at the Guggenheim. When I arrived and I gazed into one of her shimmering wall-mountedsculptures, I had an irresistible flashback.

During the trip, we visited a palace in Tehran whose walls were encrusted with carefully cut shards of glass arranged in geometric mosaic patterns–I believe it was Reza Pahlavi Palace. The sumptuous room seemed to glow with reflected light. According to the tour guide, legend had it that one of the Shahs in history had tasked a functionary to safely transport several giant mirrors to be installed in this palace, or, of course, risk execution. Inevitably, in the course of the journey he broke the mirrors. Thinking quickly, he installed the shards of glass in as a mosaic on the walls of the palace. The Shah liked it, the functionary kept his head, and mirrorwork decor became a staple of Iranian decor and art.

During the rest of my trip in Iran, I saw several other mosques and palaces whose walls were decorated with this kind of stunning geometric mirrorwork. In some cases, mirror mosaics stood side-by-side with brilliant stained glass windows, to marvelous and luminous effect.

Farmanfarmaian’s work is a sleek, contemporary continuation of that rich tradition of aineh-kari, “mirror mosaics,” in Iranian artistry. See for yourself–in the gallery above I interspersed photos of Farmanfarmaian’s pieces with photos I took in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan. For more about Monir and the historical and contemporary context of her very impressive mirror mosaics, the Guardian has an excellent piece here.

Light in New York City


One of the first things I noticed after moving to New York was the light. Light is, typically, an amorphous and shapeless phenomenon. It might bathe you in its glow, cast long blurry shadows, blind you with its glare, or scorch you with its heat–but nevertheless it generally maintains a formless, fuzzy quality. In New York City, there is no such fuzziness: here, the light travels through a linear forest of skyscrapers getting progressively more bisected into sharp angles, rectangles, polygons, and shapes of all sorts which are cast in sharp relief onto the structure walls. Alternatively, the light from the setting sun may strike a series of windows, which in turn reflect the light back onto a building across the street, ad infinitum, casting a melange of jewel-like projections onto the structure walls around you.

I love these architectural-atmospheric interactions because they enliven even the most blase of buildings, turning them into scintillating canvases or real-life abstract palettes like something out of “The Dot and the Line.” In such an ironic and acerbic city, it’s a sincere little joy that I can latch onto in the late afternoons.

New York Buildings

Whispers of history



In the older neighborhoods of Istanbul, one often finds these heavy doors, tightly locked and decorated with crosses or Hebrew inscriptions. But no matter how many times you circle the walls, there is no church or synagogue in sight, only a an enigmatic wall enclosing an apparently abandoned lot.

I always feel a bit spooked by it, like I’ve seen a ghost or a corpse. When did these churches close up and bolt their doors? What was the community like that used to sustain these places of worship? Where did those people go, and where are they now? What kind of property dispute might still be going on for the land behind those walls?

Doorways, inscriptions, fountains, walls, fragments… Istanbul is replete with whispers of past history that are not audible on a cursory visit. Being able to hear them, as haunting as they are sometimes, has been one of the most rewarding parts of living here.

Freewheeling Reports: Kızkalesi


Kizkalesi combines together two things I love: castles and beaches.

Castles are obviously awesome. I have been drawn to castles ever since I lived in Alanya, a little Mediterranean resort town with a massive Selcuk fortress built on its hillside. Apart from the obvious appeals, castles might even have old graffiti scratched into its walls by ancient soldiers.

Beaches are awesome too, but their awesomeness is less obvious, because beaches are, in the first place, boring. At most there are only a half dozen different activities you can actually do at a beach. What I’ve realized is that the boredom is their virtue: when you’re stuck on a beach you have nothing else to do except nap, swim, read–all the simple, relaxing activities that are so hard to fit in within “real” (non-vacation) life. This summer, whenever I get behind on my reading, I go to the beach where cleaning, the internet, and other distractions can’t reach me.

Kızkalesi merges these two awesome things–beaches and castles–into one quaint package. Kızkalesi, meaning “Maiden’s Castle,” is a resort beach town in southeastern Turkey, near Mersin. It was surprisingly hard to reach–the closest airport is four or so hours away in Adana. Practically all of the people around me were Turkish families with young children, and this observation was borne out by a number of my friends who said they fondly remember Kızkalesi vacations from their childhood. Consequently, the beach atmosphere is laid-back and wholesome, full of kids, dads, and moms playing with water noodles and beach balls.

However, the Mediterranean coast has many lovely little beach towns. This particular one famous throughout the country for its eponymous Crusader castle (from around 900 CE), which seems to float atop the water on an island 1000 feet offshore. In the summer, the Mediterranean waters are calm and clear, so swimming right up to it is a breeze–one woman told me she swam the distance twice a day for exercise. Once there, you can pull yourself up onto the pebbly shore, wander into the castle and climb atop its walls. There are the gorgeous views and charming white-stone architecture, and even an inscription in Armenian from when an Armenian kingdom ruled the area. But the most remarkable things inside are the extant in-situ floor tiles and mosaics, including Roman (or Greek?) text and zoomorphic imagery.

Kizkalesi, Mersin

Interestingly, a local guide told me that the floating Maiden’s Castle has an identical legendary origin storyas the floating Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul (to whit, a king, a princess, a snake bite, etc.). In fact, the more likely backstory is more crass. These castles were built to defend the coastal towns against piracy, and apparently in antiquity, seafarers called such defensive bulwarks “maiden” castles if they had never been breached by pirates.

As if one castle is not enough, on the eastern border of the beach lies another, even more expansive and imposing castle, nicknamed simply Korykos after the city’s original name . In ancient times, a pier used to connect the sea fortress to the land one, and some remnants of that pier are still visible. The land castle is in a more ruined state than Maiden’s Castle, which (for me) adds to the fun; crumbling and overgrown with trees, but still very much intact, and little visited by the beach-going tourists, Korykos has a post-apocalyptic feel. And as Merlin & Rebecca point out in their post, this castle was partly constructed out of spolia from an old Roman town. It’s fun to look out for the unexpected characters, iconography, and temple columns built haphazardly into the walls, not to mention crosses from the chapels.


There are supposedly a couple of underground caves near the town of Kızkalesi that are worth seeing. I can’t speak for the awesomeness of those. However, I can attest that Kızkalesi definitely delivers on two awesome things: beaches and castles.

Previous Freewheeling Reports, so-called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.

Photo above: Kızkalesi viewed from Korykos. Photos middle: interior of Kızkalesi. Photo below: Spolia inside Korykos.

Freewheeling Reports: Kars & Ani


Kars is a town in northeastern Turkey, astride the borders of Armenia and Georgia. If you have ever heard of Kars it is most likely in relation to the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which is set in the town and which was awarded the Nobel prize in 2006. However, Kars (pronounced to rhyme with “farce”) has more to recommend it besides the celebrity novel.

After arriving in the city, I was surprised to find that I reached my hotel without the usual Sturm-und-Drang of navigating Turkish cities. At first I congratulated myself on my prodigious directional skills. Then I realized the reason–the streets were arranged in a grid pattern. This orderly layout is not typical of Turkish cities and, like many of the assets that give Kars its unique character, it has its heritage in the decades of Russian occupation and administration following the Russo-Turkish War in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

The first part of my day there was spent in the castle and surrounding area. Kars Castle is free of charge and affords some great exploration and views of the city, as in the above photos. The areas at the base of the castle are also charming, including a rushing river and scenic picnic site, some abandoned Ottoman estates, and the ruins of two abandoned hamams, which were dusty and crumbling and titillatingly creepy to walk through. The Church of the Holy Apostles, however, dominates the area. As Elizabeth at the Dratz Adventure points out, it has had a variegated history as a church, then a mosque, then a church, then a storage space, and finally, it was reconsecrated and once again now operates as a mosque.

The second part of my day inside Kars was a scavenger hunt. Obviously, the Russian and Balkan administrators and settlers did not stop at rebuilding the roads, but they also left more obvious architectural fingerprints. Therefore, I resolved on my scavenger hunt to find as many Russian- and Baltic-style buildings as possible. I started at Fethiye Mosque, which is a converted Orthodox church. Neighboring the mosque and dotting the nearby avenues were many European-style administrative buildings and estates dating from the turn of the 20th century or older. I found at least a half dozen and ended up at Cheltikov, which is a beautifully restored Russian estate-turned-hotel. These architectural features added a depth of character and interest to the city not found in most mid-sized Turkish towns.

Finally, there were food matters to take care of. I dined at Ka-mer, a restaurant whose proceeds benefit abused women. The local meat dish is goose, which I did not try, but I did purchase fresh cheese and of course, honey. The combination of the Caucasian bee–a unique species–and the Caucasian flora means that honey from northeastern Turkey is nonpareil.

Kars & Ani

History and food nerds like me may like this stuff, but for the average tourist, the main attraction of Kars is Ani. Located about 40 km outside the city, Ani is an old Armenian settlement dating from the 10th century, now preserved as a museum and archaeological site. Set in the expansive Northeastern steppes with a mountainous backdrop–the famed Mount Ararat is visible on a clear day–it is a special and stunning place. It seemed impossible to take a bad photograph or to look in a direction without a breathtaking view.

The standing structures are the city walls, several churches, the barely discernible ruins of a hilltop castle, and a mosque–in fact the earliest Selcuk mosque in Anatolia–spread out over a plain directly on the Armenian border that took us three hours to transverse and explore adequately. The most well-preserved church contained swaths of royal blue-tinged frescoes on its interior walls and intriguing Turkic-animal-style stone detailing on the outside. My favorite church, though, was an old convent chapel perched on an outcropping over a river, in view of a modern-day Armenian border post.

Kars’ twin reputations of wretched cold weather and conservatism keep many a traveler at arms length, but as I’ve said before, don’t let prevailing stereotypes be your guide–from delicious honey, to unique steppe geography, to Russian history and Armenian cultural heritage, and more, Kars has a lot going for it.

Previous Freewheeling Reports, so called after a homework assignment from one of my Turkish professors.