The Highlands of Peru and Reverse Sensory Shock

Like many frequent travelers, I stopped regularly experiencing “culture shock,” or reverse culture shock, a long time ago.

That’s why, on of my recent returns to New York City, it was unusual that I felt noticeably more disoriented and challenged than before I had left. This city is never easy, but everything about it seemed harder than ever to parse and absorb and digest and cope with. Inside, my Manhattan apartment was a sensory deprivation box. Outside, crowds were overwhelming. When crossing a street in Midtown, or navigating a sidewalk, the pedestrian flow came at me in a bewildering onslaught. The subway was intolerably claustrophobic. I felt hemmed in by other people’s proximity, assaulted by the discrete sights, sounds, shape of their presence. I interrogated friends: Is something going on? Isn’t New York more crowded than usual? I questioned myself: Why do we live this way, crammed together in a suffocating mass?

I had to admit that it wasn’t New York, it was me: I was undergoing a kind of reverse culture shock— or more accurately, sensory shock. Just prior to this episode, we had spent a week in highland Peru. It was a short but intense period. We were in the Andean altiplanos, in some of the highest-altitude regions and settlements in the world, where the distances are strikingly vast and apparently empty. You can look across a valley or field and see what seems like nothing, for miles. After a while, on a hillside in the distance, you notice some specks of white. Are they flowers? Alpacas? Sheep? Houses? Rocks? The distances are so vast, austere, and featureless, that scale or depth is no help, and it takes effort and the rallying of all your senses to form a guess. Driving through passes in the highlands, you often don’t see a single person for hours. Or, think again: straining your eyes, you may spot a small figure engulfed in the vastness of the landscape.

After acculturating and sensitizing yourself to this environment, you come to know it’s not empty. It’s full of life and spirit. Condors ascend miles out of the blue depths of the Colca Canyon and you squint and strain your eyes to see their form take shape out of the stark blue sky. Vicuña flicker in and out of vision against the craggy background. You are led to a sacred place where the apu is said to live. From a distance, it looks like a pile of pebbles, or a small hill, but as you move closer, it becomes a massive volcanic formation towering high above. Climbing inside, you find an intimate plateau carpeted with soft greenery and tiny orange flowers. From that vantage, soft white llamas extend and blur into the soft white clouds in the horizon.

In the process of opening your senses to perceive all that lives in the stark landscape, the landscape comes into you, and opens you.

Returning from this context, back to the city, was jarring. The close quarters of small apartments and restaurants felt stifling and sensorily deprived. Crowds and commerce were overwhelming and abrasive. My senses, adapted as they were to the Peruvian highlands, were a liability here. It took some time to recalibrate to the urban environment, and I did, but the question has remained in my mind.

Why do we live this way?

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Purple sunset shells

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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.

Freewheeling Reports: Georgia photo diary

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Last month, during Turkey’s kurban holiday, I traveled to Georgia where I visited Tbilisi (the capital), Mtskheta (a historical religious center), and Kazbegi (a town in the mountains near Russia). I can’t even begin to give a full account of everything we did that week, much less give a worthy overview of Georgia as a travel destination and country, so below I simply posted a gallery of photos, which also don’t do any justice but at least prove I was there and give a small taste of Georgia’s awesomeness. Enjoy.

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Freewheeling Reports: Bursa (Redux)

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Bursa is Turkey’s fourth-largest city, located in the northwest a couple hours outside of Istanbul. I have been here before: that’s when I saw karagöz and first visited the many mosques, tombs, caravansarays, castles, and mosque complexes pictured here and here. As the old capital of the Ottoman Empire, the city is filled with the tombs of famous people, such as Osman, the founder of the Empire, and his son Orhan, and it has some of the best preserved examples of old Ottoman architecture. Plus it’s famous for its greenery and parks (giving the city its epithet, Yeşil Bursa or “Green Bursa”), for its silk and other traditional handicrafts, and its famous local dish, Iskender kebap. Overall, it’s an incredibly scenic city and one that deserves long rambling walks on a sunny day.

This time, I wasn’t there to see mosques and tombs. I was there to conquer Uludağ, the “Great Mountain” that towers over Bursa. Uludağ is the highest point in western Turkey (2,543 meters/8,343 feet) and a famous destination for skiing and hiking. Although more for skiing than hiking… The locals seemed frankly confused as to why anyone would ever want to walk to the mountaintop.

Our journey up the mountain started near the Atatürk statue up the street from the Grand Bazaar and Ulu Cami. There, we hopped into dolmuşes (shared taxis) that carried us to the teleferik (cable car) station. We then rode two different wobbly cable cars up the mountain side as dense green forest whisked by below us. After getting off at the second stop, we piled into buses that drove us past currently deserted hotels and ski resorts and finally dropped us at a putative trailhead where we began our journey.

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Two drawings

Drawing nature is hard! All those repetitive leaves and petals.

The tree blossom girl got short hair because I had just gotten my hair cut short–everyone who sees me now thinks I look “sassy” (that exact word). The little girl was a quick drawing for a friend.

Trying desperately to integrate artistic creativity back into my life amid everything–it’s so satisfying but so difficult to find the time and peace of mind. Wish me luck!

Photo walks: Meditate and create

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
–Robert Louis Stevenson, “Happy Thought” (From A Child’s Garden of Verses)

Photo walks are when I pick up my camera, take a walk to some familiar place, and go looking for photos. I have done it for years now–my first photo-walk photos were taken on a camera that stored the pics on floppy disks. The photos I take on these walks have never been spectacular, just glimpses of ordinary things that seem extraordinary at the time, such as a crane resting on the river, or the reflection of leaves on a windowpane…

A childish imp with rusty fingers….

A lavender and green ladder of flowers to the sky…

The shape and rhythm of raindrops sprinkling the canal…

The dancing speckled emerald glow of sunlight filtering through wind-kissed leaves…

Balloons mimicking the sky and puffy white clouds…

And lots of other little, ordinary things.

Photos are not the purposes of a photo walk but a mean to the ends of reconnecting with my past, getting in touch with my environment, rekindling my creative juices, and meditating. The camera is just an excuse to reflect on my environment and exercise my creative eye.

The best part is that during and after one of these walks, my mind feels extraordinarily clear, calm, and peaceful. I highly recommend you create your own ritual that helps you meditate and create.

All photos by: Me

Walking


I wish to speak a good word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. We require an infusion of hemlock, spruce, or arbor vitae in our tea.

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no passing life in remembering the past.

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