Tag Archives: Travelogue

Italy, Street-Level

Pigeon on street

What travel writers fail to write about, but what every traveler to Rome quickly understands, is that the vitality of Rome is at street level, in the shops and alleys and plazas down below, not the arcing walls and commanding towers above. From the agrarian countryside of windblown trees, summerfallow fields and feeding doves, to the stone walls, tenements, and ancient shops of the city, the feeling of humanity – not the highbrow renaissance kind, but the hunkered down, feeding and slurping kind – permeates the land.

At such an early hour there were no people. I went to the dining patio, still pearly with dew and waking, and sat beside a fat, solitary pear dangling over the table. The furniture was plastic and artificial, the table cloth a gingham red; a wild, viney rose bush ran the length of the railing, sprouting and sprawling beyond a narrow planter. Two pigeons strutted on the concrete, their cooing displacing the silence.

“Si, you go there, if you like, to take breakfast.” Alberto, our front desk clerk with a wandering left eye instructed us in the hotel amenities when we arrived. “I can go early?” I asked. “Anytime. All the time.” He shrugged. “Is open always.”

The sun lifted and daylight fell down the canyon walls. A waitress appeared to prepare the tables for breakfast. At each table she placed white crockery – cups of varying sizes for coffee, milk and cereal. She set down wicker baskets of small jams and jellies and individual packages of Fette Biscottate. When Harumi tried dunking one of these in her coffee, it fell apart before it reached her mouth. The girl rolled out trolleys bearing cisterns of hot coffee, hot tea and hot milk. A final tray with a domed glass case she filled with fresh croissants, both plain and sweetened. She didn’t speak. She moved silently.

The city woke, and we went out into it. Along the streets, shutters were being rolled open and windows washed. It was Monday, so shelves got their weekly dusting and signs their makeover. Rome stopped being a pallid warehouse of coveted antiquity – as it appeared on every summer weekend – and started being a thriving city.

“Giorno,” they said. It was the sound of a swallow, or hiccup. I couldn’t tell if it was coming out or going in, but it was how these men – these grey-haired clerks, middle-aged with that Roman rotundity all men over forty seemed to develop – said hello. In the abbreviated morning greeting, they conferred casual respect and an comfortable awareness of their clientele, the way a fat uncle doesn’t get up when you enter the room, staying instead in front of the television, burping.

Customers came for the legs of ham as wide and deep as a lute, for wheels of cheese, for buckets of salamella piscante. They bought deep-fried, stuffed olives, frozen octopus and Speedy Pizza, “alla Four Margherita” inside. They came in their auntie dresses and reading glasses and bags of goods already filled at other stores, and they were served with direct and simple care. They were like family.

Outside, the square was dominated by a statue of the martyred, hooded and solemn-looking Giordeno Bruno. His execution, after a life of persecution and accusations of heresy, was a death by fire at the hands of 17th century inquisitors. The statue was his record. At its base was a fruit stand.

Stalls mobbed the square and turned Campo de Fiori into a lively morning market. Stalls overflowed with cherry tomatoes, string beans both verdant green and psychedelic pink, unpolished apples, zucchini, peppers curled and folded into themselves like soft plastercine. At the lettuce stall, a dizzyingly diverse range of boxes were individually labeled: scaroia, cicoric, spinaci, caitaga, finocchi, ruigheita, rugola, taglio, apolloti and toglia di quereira.

“Do you speak English?” A small, blond woman in her late-thirties approached me at the fruit stand. Another woman in front of me had just bought a monstrous cluster of green grapes. I was considering the single small vine remaining. I could wash them at the tap and gobble them up in one sitting. Before Harumi was finished with her picture taking.


“Yes,” I said. I lay the small cluster back in the box and waited for the clerk to look my way.

“You never touch things in an Italian market!” She said this with a pinched, urgent look on her face. Her hand sliced through the air as she finished.

“I’m buying this.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said in her tight British accent. “Never.” She turned and walked quickly away.

Hers was the condescending need to educate. She’d likely been in Italy before, perhaps she was one of those British tax or weather exiles that warmer, cheaper European countries seem to attract. Like Canadians in Cancun. She was a fan of D.H. Lawrence, or Shelly and Keats, and she spoke Italian in the same pressed and clipped manner she spoke English. She knew Italy, and had a self-impressed fool’s maternalism over its customs. She saw an American (what else?) and needed to teach him a lesson.

Snippy bitch.


Conversations ranged around us, between customers and clerks, between co-workers, between neighbors and neighboring shopkeepers… and of course we could understand none of it.

“Get your damn bike out of my way!”

“I’ll ride where I want. Move your blasted store.”

“Move my– why you pig-faced sodomite. You ride that thing back this way and I’ll–”

“And I’ll ride over your fat ass. Then I’ll ride over your mother.”

“No mothers! Hey, no mothers! Vino!”


“This son of a bloated pig – hey, whose your mother?! – wants to meet the Father, the Son, *and* the Holy Ghost.”

“Let’s send him on his way then.”

“Come on then, you two. Let’s go. Right now.”

This might have been what they were saying, these three middle-aged, stubby shopkeepers in their white aprons, shapeless caps and open-collar shirts. Might have been, had they not ended the loud, sharp exchange – the hand-clenching, arm-waving, red-faced dialogue – with laughter and claps on each others’ back. The sun had crawled down the high apartment walls and hit the piazza floor.



To travel to Shikoku and Kyushu, the southern-most islands of Japan’s main archipelago, is to never be far from water. Whether you take the train, fly or drive, water is beside, under and around you. Outside of the urban, concrete corridors of Tokyo, past the monumental and majestic Mt. Fuji, and just beyond the ancient, wooded expanses of worship in Kyoto, you travel across land but you are thoroughly within this world of water.

Some time after returning from a recent trip, I read an article in B&W Photography entitled “How to Shoot Water.” Unfortunately, they don’t have a website of their own (!) nor a link to the article, but the photographer, Lee Frost, does. His suggestions ranged from “work in overcast light” and “use a ND filter,” to “use a wide angle lens to fill the foreground with reflections” and “use long exposures to turn water to milk.”


I can’t say that I followed all the technical advice, since I was more interested in subject matter than technique: what I was after — and found — was images of wide open spaces and singular individuals. These two visual aspects are rare in densely-populated Japan, but they exist; you just have to travel to find them. On the ferry from Honshu to Shikoku, a crane sat  in the water like a rigid but fluid, well, crane. In the backroads of Shikoku, a solitary fisherwoman found foothold in a moving stream. From a bridge in Kyushu, I spotted kayakers navigating the dimpled waters like leaves in a creek.


The beauty of the water, in the backyard of Japan, is undeniable. The quiet expressiveness of the scenes you will meet on this type of trip are thoroughly enjoyable. Sitting and gazing is not unknown in Japan; admiring the beauty of a rock garden or a sumi ink painting is a still pleasure many foreigners have heard about even if they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it themselves. But to be able to do so in the not-so-vast outdoors of Japan is a treat you should not put off. Come on in, the water’s fine.


Something in the Air

DSC_0549_JTHRFKathmandu had shed its night, the dark that descended as I walked alongside the Royal Palace, the dark that brought out the gargantuan bats, the dark that hid broken sidewalks and breaking streets. But as I walked the sleepiness out of my system that first morning, the monochrome grey light at six AM showed nothing more than small carrion birds fighting with the garbage. The city moved barely a twitch. With no real light, it didn’t seem alive.

Then the sun rose and the color took over. Streetsweepers – mothers tending children – wore bright pinks and reds and greens while they swished filth from the center of the road, their saris more vivid for the browns and greys of this brick and rock city they were set against. Young boys with conical straw baskets tied to bicycles as old as dirt used shovels to scoop it up and cart it away. The women swatted and swept, clucking all the while with each other and to their toddlers, and never lost their feminine dignity in the process.

Schoolgirls traipsed up the road in twos and threes, their ochre saris contrasting with their Nepali faces. Perhaps it was less the Nepali-ness of their faces that clashed with the saris than the youth of them. Round, glowing faces they had, cheeks with a ducky flush, unbeguiling eyes – their faces were young but the dress ages old. A vendor parked outside the gates of their school sold pencils, erasers and limp notebook paper common all over the subcontinent.

The smaller streets came to life. Men brushed their teeth at open taps, children wandered sleepy-eyed out of cave-like doorways, women splashed small pots and tin cups in filthy buckets of slime. The shop clerks started their day, some by rolling up a shutter of steel and opening their storefront, others by squatting on the sidewalk and folding back the cloth that covered their basket of papayas or lettuce or bunched carrots carried in through the night. A butcher hacked away at the carcass of a goat that had the scrawny look of a skinned dog, only recognizable by the cloven feet splayed across the steel cutting table. Underneath, exposed necks of wet, still-feathered chicken corpses leaked blood into pools that drained in thick rivulets down the sidewalk. The scene looked like death.

There was beauty as well, to counter the grim reality of daylight in this grey city. The clerk at the Royal Singi hotel counter. She had none of the round ruddiness of the schoolgirls; instead her face was slimmed by adulthood, with a honey tawniness throughout her cheeks, neck and partially bared shoulders. Her slim nose held a tiny jewel in the side that matched the tikal in her forehead. She asked questions appropriate for a hotel clerk used to catering to foreigners: where are you from, where are you going, how long, why so short, what do you do in Tokyo, when will you come back to Nepal – and I in turn told the bellhop beside us how beautiful she was. She, bolder than I, thanked me directly.

Then the two stewardesses on Ghorka Air as we flew into the Terai. Modest to daring skirt lengths, mascara’d eyes and taut bellies peeking out of sari-styled tops. Each had a slash of red dye in the center part of their hair; alas, they were married. Crouching, they walked the length of a cabin not high enough to stand straight up in, passing out candies to suck and cotton balls to plug into our ears. Their hands were thin, fine like a piano player’s; their nails a dark burgundy.

And the 22-year old mother of two. A shopkeeper in Sauraha on the border of the Royal Chitwan National Park, a tiny, dusty settlement in the southern Terai. She had two rows of clean, even teeth that rivaled the whites of her eyes for brightness. Her youngest sat on the floor in a brown shirt and no bottoms, his own dusky bottom the color of his shirt. Her shop could have been a century old; the shelves were dark rotting wood, the ceiling thatch; the floor uneven concrete. Light came from the open front wall and a three-foot high backdoor her older child stood shyly within. I traded 100-yen bracelets I had brought with me from Tokyo. She had better on her wrist already but liked the newness of my goods, and when she put them on and shook them, her youngest squeaked in excited wonder at the sound they made. She smiled and cooed back at him in her own Nepali baby talk. They mirrored each other’s glee, and I was immediately smitten.

There was something in the sounds of Nepal, something in the light of day; there was something in the air.

[This article was originally published many years earlier.]

Two Weeks in India


To say it was eye-opening is an understatement. To comment on the weird, ugly, gross, dirty aspects of India is really easy because those things are everyday, in your face, and memorable, but it also does a disservice to the country and people, which have so much more of what is good and great. I’m trying to come to terms with ”how” to describe something — anything — in a pithy way that doesn’t just come out ”the place smelled like human excrement, but the people were always smiling.” Saying it that way gives the impression of a lone Indian squatting on the tracks beside the train taking his morning dump in front of God, Shiva, and everyone, and smiling like a fool as a trainload of passengers rolls by.


Come to think of it, that’s exactly what you might see on any given morning. So I think about specific places and what I experienced there, and how to balance the beautiful with the bizarre in the retelling. At Jaipur, for example, also known as The Pink City because of the ordinance that all exterior walls of all buildings (within the old city) must be painted pink, we saw 400-year old palaces (pink ones!), we saw the world’s largest sundial, built 300 years ago by a Raj genius and keeping time to the minute even today, and we saw a dead dog in the middle of a busy backroad lay untouched and swelling in the Indian heat for two full days while cars continued to drive around it, people stepped around it, children played around it.


There was a lot of that, and it’ll take some time for me to learn how to tell the stories. I think I have to go back.



JL Tyler PhotographyI was in Tunisia in September 2001, and despite the short period, saw much that impressed me. I’d wondered about Africa for years, not knowing what it held, and yet wanting to see it – any of it, all of it. The little I saw I’ve turned into a few vignettes which I hope you enjoy.

I have not included the entire text as these stories will be published in the near future. If you wish to read the full text or enquire about publishing rights, please contact me here.

1. Necessary Evil

The Oriental Palace Hotel wasn’t the most impressive hotel in Tunis – that distinction belongs to the strangely inverted Grand Hotel du Lac (a structure resembling a pyramid stood on its point) – but it was listed as “five star” in our guide book and, with exchange rates, was affordable. We booked a room from Italy and looked forward to Mediterranean Africa’s first class treatment.

2. The Spice of Life

Tunis is a quiet place, saccharine even, a market town of amber hues and the scent of sandalwood. Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard, is a tree-lined concourse illuminated in the night by art-nouveau fixtures (think: arches over entrances to the Paris Metro); they turn the city a golden-orange like the Saharan sand. Lining the avenue are moderately-priced hotels, artisan collectives, the city’s only mall, and an off-beat church or two.

3. Attacking Carthage

We walked in Tunis, and it was always hot. We left the Hotel Carlton and walked west. It was mid-morning. At the newsagent stands alongside the road – little cardboard kiosks catering to walkers and drivers pulling over to the sidewalk – the glossy magazine covers were rippling and warped from the blistering, direct sunlight.

The train was stifling, a poorly-ventilated local linking Tunis to Carthage and beyond. Despite the rich, eastern suburbs it eventually served – La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said, Le Corniche – it shuttled a motley crew to points prior. We passed through areas with names like La Goulette (the gullet), Le Bac and Le Kram, where locals got on, sweated, and got off. At Le Bac, the doors smashed open beside us, and a grizzled face with one pulpy socket empty of its eye poked in. He was filthy; his hands were scabbed and black from grime. He held fast to the doors as he swung his head inward and about. When he entered the car fully, the doors rattled shut behind him and he moved through the crowd muttering prayer, or curse, or entreaty.

4. Cafe Life

Tunisian cafes are dark and suffused with a smoky moodiness, and though they lack the life and light of Paris, they are no less integral to one’s day. The Cafe Ezzitouna is within the medina and is dark and oaken rich in color. It is quietly respectable (its name means “The Cafe of the Mosque of the Olive Tree”), and its customers are Medina shop clerks on their breaks. Dim yellow lights light wooden benches along the walls; some are covered with flat, green cushions, some are bare. Every few spaces there is a round pedastle table with copper inlay, and on each is an ashtray. The wet heat of the room is barely disturbed by the dark fan rotating against the carved ceiling, a pattern of squares and crosses. People talk softly if they talk at all.