Feb 22, 2014
Miniature Costume Fabricator
Annika Schindler comes from a long line of handy women. She began sewing at age six thanks to her mother, an apparel designer, and her grandmother, who played a major role in fostering Annika’s love for patterns and knitting.
Annika concentrated in fashion design at university, and for a while she kept busy in the fashion world. She later transitioned to costume design for theater and live-action productions, and then discovered her passion for the little things in miniature costume design.
Annika really took to miniatures because they present such great challenges. Her job requires a lot of creative problem-solving when making decisions about material, performance, and proportion. Because of this, she is always experimenting with new fabrics and dyes. If one idea doesn’t work, she quickly learns why and can draw on her years of experience to know what logical alterations should come next. Sometimes the proportions she works with are so tiny that Annika needs to make small tools to fit her fingers so that she can manipulate the costumes more precisely. And when she’s in the middle of a project, she applies herself with such steadfast focus that her hands sometimes blister.
I met Annika during a 12-day Thai massage course. Despite not having had any experience with bodywork, Annika was a natural at it. It makes sense when you think about it. Her job requires great muscle memory to know how materials will respond to pressure. The body is just another medium for her handiwork.
By the end of our time in the massage village, Annika had the greatest number of IOUs at the coffee shop. Whether jittering from too much caffeine, nestling a cigarette, or indulging her OCD knitting and spinning habit until cramping sets in, Annika’s hands certainly move to the rhythm of a masterful puppeteer.
Click here to learn more about the Zyklopik art collective of which Annika is a part. You can watch examples of her work in motion here, here, here, and here.
Feb 6, 2014
Maca Mora lives to climb. Her fascination began ten years ago when she started working in ecotourism in her home country of Chile. Since then, she’s climbed her way across some pretty impressive pieces of rock in Australia, New Zealand, China, Nepal, India, and Thailand.
I caught up with Maca in the hills of Chiang Rai, Thailand, where we were both taking a 12-day Thai massage course. She talked about the parallels between the two uses of the body.
“Posture is important for preventing injury,” she says.
It’s almost laughable to compare the foreseeable risks of each activity. Approach your client at the wrong angle and you might wind up with undue tension in your lower back. Approach the next boulder at the wrong angle and you could die.
“I have lost many friends,” she tells me very matter-of-factly.
Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart. Maca’s most daring climb, her favorite, was the totem pole in Tasmania. One look at that and I know exactly how serious this lady is about her rocks.
Maca tells me that there are some preventive measures that climbers can take to protect their hands. Tape acts as an extra layer of skin. This is welcome support for even the most callused hands, especially when working on sandstone. Climbers can also use chalk for absorbing moisture to create a confident grip and to avoid a fall. Falling can mean grasping for rock, which tends to be pretty unforgiving and often scrapes calluses right off. This leaves a bloody mess and no natural defense for the next climb.
Maca’s worst injury left her with a broken coccyx. She was on bed rest for one month. To keep her hands busy, she took up a serious knitting habit. The injury didn’t keep her down, but instead had the benefit of making her face her own limits.
“You must try challenges you know you cannot do. It is the only way to know what you can do.”
The sport has become a sort of meditation for Maca. She has faced plenty of personal challenges in the last ten years, but they’ve only served to improve her abilities. Her mentality has become so strong that she claims she can control whether and where she will fall.
“There are some places where I know I cannot fall, and so I don’t fall there.” Instead, she falls where she knows she can afford to, sometimes to avoid a later fall that might have had dire consequences.
It had been ten days since her last climb when I photographed Maca. The skin on her hands has relieved itself of active duty. Her next climb will be a painful one. Even so, she will climb because she must.
Jan 10, 2014
Thai Masseur, Teacher
Lahu Village, Chiang Rai, Thailand
When I signed up for the introductory Thai yoga massage course with the Sunshine Network in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew that I wanted to be able to massage people properly, to interpret with confidence the Brialle-like hills and valleys of that veiled world, the body. Touch, I knew, had the power to heal.
My first experience with Thai massage had done little to calm my nerves. What was all of this poking and prodding, the pulling and twisting of limbs? This wasn’t the relaxation massage I was used to. How would I ever learn these complex sequences, this new dance with a client, in only twelve days?
Relief came upon meeting the instructors for the course. There were a handful of Italians, a Canadian, a Greek, and a Thai man named Chatchoi. They all seemed really jazzed about what they were going to teach us. The excitement over learning was contagious.
The course began with a video about the school. We students sat with mouths agape at some of the advanced arrangements on display. A baby Chatchoi popped onto the screen. His father, Asokananda, literally wrote the book on Thai massage. His methods were what we were here to learn.
Though Asokananda passed away in 2005, his work continues through the Sunshine Network’s course offerings all around the world. The Lahu village in Chiang Rai has been the heart of the Sunshine Network for the last 27 years. This is where Chatchoi oversees the courses that teach the methods his father devised decades ago.
Chatchoi has been practicing massage since he was five years old. It’s the only thing he has ever imagined doing. Even when he is on holiday from teaching, he still practices massage.
"You must keep practicing. If you stop for long, your hands lose their muscle," he tells me. To regain strength, he suggests working a ball of wax until it is warm and compliant.
During our interview, I examined Chatchoi’s hands at length. In the photo, you might notice that the pads of his fingers are swollen and worn. The depth of his fingerprints has been compromised by clients’ clothing. The lines of his palms remain the only trustworthy landmarks amidst the suggestion of a maze that most of our hands bare. It’s a small tradeoff for the power to heal.
On using the hands to read the body, Chatchoi is reserved with his words. This language is something he has known his whole life. His hands read resistance and damage in the body the way that his eyes read Thai. It is communication all the same.
Jan 8, 2014
When you walk through the touristic area of Kathmandu known as Thamel (TUH•mel), you’ll be overwhelmed by the high concentration of activity. There are travel agencies stacked on top of each other, trekking guides trying to get your business in the street below. Rickshaw drivers constantly survey the shifting mass of faces for one that looks lost or hesitant. Cars careen around rough corners with no sidewalks, often on one-ways, somehow squeezing by in pairs. Old men play strange strings and woodwinds in hopes that their tunes will enchant a traveler into buying one of their slipshod instruments. Children pop up from their cross-legged positions on the side of the road, appealing for work with, “You want henna?” They look like good kids, though you wonder why they’re not at school on a weekday morning.
During my two weeks in Kathmandu, I’d repeatedly refused the children’s advances. I wanted some henna, but I wasn’t going to do it if I had to go to the ATM one more time. I waited ‘til my last full day, a Monday, to crunch the numbers. I could swing it if I could be a tough haggler.
My friend Audra and I accepted the first offer we got while we were en route to our favorite cafe. It came from a kid named Raj. We asked him if he would come to the cafe with us and do his thing there. He agreed.
We ordered our drinks. Though we’d made it clear to Raj that the Oreo shake was for him, he didn’t believe us and continued on my piece for 10 minutes while his shake began to melt. We finally insisted that he take a sip. His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas. He chugged the thing and clutched his head. This was his first brain freeze.
I had told Raj to do whatever he wanted for my design. My only request was that there be lots of flowers. I also didn’t want to pay more than 500 rupees (~$5). Later on, two henna girls stopped me in the street, admired my arm, and told me they knew it was Raj’s work. “He does a good job,” they confirmed.
After my henna was done, I took Raj outside and photographed him. He handed me the magazine of henna designs that he shows to clients to get an idea of what to draw for them. He told me he could recreate any of the designs in the catalog; he had been practicing for two years.
The photographed design is Audra’s. It features Buddha eyes in the middle and the Monkey Temple toward the bottom. The best documentation of my design is in the photo of me and Audra on our last morning before parting ways.
Raj knew I was leaving, but he told Audra to see him another time if she needed touch-ups. He slipped us his business card: crudely torn scraps of gray paper with his name and phone number.
Locals and visitors alike claim that you never go to Nepal just once. Many people I met were on their second go around. Audra is now on her third. And maybe I’ll head there a second time down the line. If I do, I’ll know where to get the best henna in town.
Oct 25, 2013
Anyone who lives in the mountains or treks among them knows that while the views can be breathtakingly beautiful, they can also literally take your breath away.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a condition which occurs to about half of people who pass the acclimatization line (roughly 11,150 feet). When crossing this line, it’s best to keep your ascents to around or under 2,000 feet per day to allow your body to adjust to the decreased oxygen content in the air. Your body will start producing more red blood cells, your blood will travel to the deepest penetralia of your pulmonary capillaries, and your hemoglobin will give up oxygen more readily than it would at sea level. It’s a fascinating and necessary process.
One major method that regular trekkers will use is the “climb high, sleep low” strategy. This means that you can ascend more than 2,000 feet in one day so long as you descend back to an altitude that is not much greater than 2,000 feet from where you started that day. This technique allows your body to acclimate much more quickly and will improve the quality of your sleep (though once you get to a certain altitude, there really is not much you can do to make sleep a comfortable process, as you’ll likely wake up gasping for air until you’ve spent a few days to a week above altitudes of 18,000 feet or more (and you’re probably not going to take that time in such a cold, uncomfortable climate unless you’re aiming to summit a mountain)).
If you’re not careful about acclimatizing, all kinds of nasty things can happen. Mountain sickness always begins with a headache that may or may not be accompanied by a conscious shortness of breath. Next, loss of appetite (basically, if you don’t feel like you could eat every minute of every day while you’re trekking, that’s a little weird). Third, you’ll get a bit dizzy. Next, nausea and ataxia (not being able to walk in a straight line). By this time, you should’ve already started descending with someone. If you decide to ride it out at your current altitude, you might face more serious consequences, like pulmonary or cerebral edema (when the lungs or brain become flooded with tissue leakage; yum, yeah?). One or two people on the Annapurna Circuit die each year due to AMS.
When I was trekking, I was highly in tune with how my body was feeling, and though sometimes I’d wake up from a shallow nap just gasping for air, I never had a headache, even when most people do (14,800 feet and above). I think I was lucky to have been an obese child because my body grew in consideration of the necessity for hyperventilation. I have also heard that people who used to smoke are less likely to get sick at high altitudes. (Get on that pack-a-day habit, kids!) God knows that my five-month hiatus from running, my cheese habit in France and the generous family meals on the farm in Turkey sure didn’t increase my likeliness to successfully tackle this feat at the pace at which it was accomplished.
Everyone who hikes the Annapurna Circuit is encouraged to take a full rest day in Manang (11,614 feet) to allow the body to acclimatize. On this rest day, it is a good idea to stay in keeping with the “climb high, sleep low” philosophy and take a side trip to a higher altitude. There are many beautiful sights around Manang, but the one that sounded the most interesting to me was to Praken Gompa.
A gompa is a religious shrine where a Tibetan Buddhist monk (aka, a lama) lives. Over the last 46 years in which Tashi Lama (picture #4) has been the resident religious figure here, he has earned the nickname “100 Rupee Lama” for the 100 rupee ($1) donation that travelers will give in exchange for a puja ceremony. The ceremony consists of Tashi Lama blessing a sacred thread so that the traveler around whose neck the thread is tied will have a safe crossing of the Thorung La Pass, which is the highest point on the Circuit (17,769 feet) and the widest mountain pass in the world.
When I arrived at the gompa, the 100 Rupee Lama’s sister was there in his place. Tashi Lama, at the tender age of 97, was in Kathmandu receiving medical treatment. I did not learn whether his condition was serious. In his place, his sister, who is also a lama, was the one performing the short ceremony for me and my guide. After the blessing, she made two black teas and gave us each a mug. It was a cold day, and we were grateful to warm our hands.
The lamas live high up on a cliffside that is 1,640 feet above Manang. For the bulk of the year, they grow most of their own food and come down to the village only for essentials. During the winter months, however, it’s not possible for them to reside so far from town, so they transition to a home in central Manang. And though they are used to the altitude, they’ll take all the rest days they can get.
Oct 24, 2013
When you plan a trek through the Himalayas, there are a few essentials to bring. First, it’s going to be cold, so you better have a down jacket and warm socks and boots. Second, the water’s going to make you sick if you drink it, so a good filtration system or iodine tabs are a solid precautionary measure. There’s food along the way, but you better bring chocolate for the really tough days. Just make sure to keep the goodies hidden inside your bag, as there are natural predators lurking in every village you’ll come across.
They’ll pop out to greet you with an innocuous “Namaste!” and they sure are cute, so you’re likely to engage. (They’re Nepali kids and you’re not a monster.) But next, they’ll stick out their right hand, throw their left to their right elbow—a sign of respect in making a transaction in Nepal—and say, “You have sweet?!” You’ll say, “No, sorry!” and maybe laugh a bit, but they’ll consider this to be no laughing matter. “One pen?” comes next. “Nope, no pen!” “One rupee,” they’ll demand. “Sorry.” They’ll look you up and down to see if you’re lying, confusion the primary message scrawled across their faces. They might follow you for a little while, their hands outstretched the whole time, and you’ll just think, “One pen? I get the sweet thing and the rupee thing, but why a pen?”
This happened in every village while I was trekking. Some children were more aggressive than others. Most were pretty docile, but I once watched a 9- or 10-year-old girl follow two women through the better part of her village because these ladies were carrying a transparent plastic bag with prepackaged cookies inside. The girl pointed at the bag and tried to wrest it from them several times all to no avail.
My guide, Krishna, knew to expect this, so every time he passed a certain tree that bore a lemony fruit, he’d stockpile the bitter globes and pass them out when kids would get to begging. Their reaction was usually along the lines of “This not sweet!” though they would continue to suck and chew on the coarse treat long after this realization. And Krishna and I would saunter off with loosely suppressed giggles.
Hey, it’s a long trek, and you’ve gotta get your kicks somehow. Just cross your fingers it’s not from a child kicking you for your one pen.
Oct 23, 2013
Left to right, top to bottom: András, Budapest, Hungary; Ali, Istanbul, Turkey; Yahya, Aleppo, Syria; Talla, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Simone, Copenhagen, Denmark; Shaul, Tel Aviv, Israel; Eva, Ljubljana, Slovenia; Chelsea, Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Elaine, Kerry, Ireland; Selena, Columbus, Ohio, USA; Marthe, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Maggy, Paris, France; Maja, Aarhus, Denmark; Eduard, Barcelona, Spain; Bea “Big Lady”, Stockholm, Sweden; Rono, Feira de Santana, Brazil; Eliza, Portland, Oregon, USA; Robert, Ballymoney, Northern Ireland; Andraž, Ljubljana, Slovenia; Lisa, Boise, Idaho, USA; Gülnur, Istanbul, Turkey; Selen, Istanbul, Turkey; Alisa, Dortmund, Germany; Miriam Jasmine, Breitenfürst, Germany
Believe it or not, even in the year 2013, most of the homes in the world are still made from mud and other natural materials. While we who have inherited privilege in the first world keep modernizing the technology it takes to build our shelters, those who do not have access to such resources—and sometimes those who just know better—keep sticking with the same methods that have proven effective since the dawn of human existence.
The benefits to building a mud home are many. First, it’s efficient. Instead of building a structure that requires active heating and cooling, you can build one that will absorb and release solar energy in a methodical way or which integrates rocket mass heating as a solution in colder climates, allowing the house to breathe easily across all four seasons.
Second, a naturally built home is completely customizable. Ever looked at photos of cob homes? With almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about this subject, these photos trigger some sort of nesting part of the brain which craves connection to the home through personal decoration. Building your home from the ground up allows you to express your creativity in consideration of the ways in which you and your family/community will use the space.
Third, there is the issue of cost. Many, but not all, of the places that still rely on natural building techniques are not the world’s wealthiest regions. They use these materials because they have to be resourceful, and they know that the buildings their parents and grandparents constructed will work in their environment. Many people who have access to more modern resources still choose to build with mud because it’s, well, dirt cheap and will keep them unchained from the American dream’s promise of lifelong debt.
Fourth, mud building is educational and community-building. In the last hundred years, most of the west has lost a lot of common knowledge about how to adapt to our environment instead of the reverse. By encouraging a reversion to natural building, we’re also encouraging our community’s excavation of other long-dormant intentional human behaviors like farming and prophylactic natural medicine.
Along with the fourth part, natural building is a blast. Any group project provides an opportunity to forge lifelong friendships while exploring possibilities together. Building a house is an especially large challenge, which means that the rewards are that much greater.
One of my personal dreams in life is to build my own home. In order to do that in the future, I need to get started on my education in the present. Back when I was deciding my next moves in Italy, I used the site helpx.net to connect with the Nar Ciftlig Organik Farm in Kerpe, Turkey. They were offering a free volunteer opportunity to learn about mud building, and I jumped at the chance to spend my time learning this new skill. Over the course of seven six-day work weeks, I exchanged big ideas about the future with some incredible people whom I now refer to as my Turkish family, ate the best farm-to-table food of my life, and sang my heart out and danced my butt off while mixing clay, sand, gravel, straw, and water to make the adobe cocktail that would soon become 1200+ bricks and, later, a grain storage facility.
Many people were involved in the creation of the facility. Sadly, the schedule for building had to be pushed back a couple of weeks, and I was unable to stay and be a part of that process. The collage represents most of the people who got their hands dirty to complete this project. It is not a comprehensive collage, but it is a fair representation of the diversity of people who put their hearts into this labor of love (save for some Turkish children and adults, a few Aussies, a Frenchman, and a Taiwanese woman).
The primary coordinator of the project was Shaul Shaham (second column and row). A world traveler for 10 years now, Shaul spent a couple months learning how to build with mud when he was living in a kibbutz in Israel once he had finished his compulsory military service. The kibbutz changed the course of his life and the direction of his travels thereafter. This was his first solo building project. And a successful one it was, as you can see in this video and the photo above (credit to Alisa from Germany).
For more information on the possibilities of natural building, I highly recommend you give this video a fair watch.
Oct 21, 2013
Pittsburgh, PA by way of Newington, CT
At the ripe old age of 28, Steve Slusarski retired from his six-year career in nuclear power plant maintenance with Westinghouse, grabbed his friend Aaron, who he had known since their college days at Rensselaer Polytechnic, and began riding a bicycle around the world. Now 30, he still hasn’t stopped pedaling.
I met Steve when he was on a temporary assignment in Cleveland back in the summer of 2011. During our initial conversation, he mentioned that he was planning to quit his job and cycle around the world with a friend. At the time, I didn’t know people could do that. A short while later, it became evident that Steve was serious about making it happen.
His trip started in Singapore back in January 2012. Since then, he’s cycled across 16 countries in Asia and 13+ in Europe (the only stickers missing in the photo are Austria and Italy, Steve’s current base). It’s a lot of ground to cover—tens of thousands of miles, actually. And with each rotation of the pedals, someplace new. At each stop, an unfamiliar face. Always the opportunity for growth from encountering the novel and oh so strange.
From assembling his bicycle in airports to making roadside repairs to pitching a tent in the middle of nowhere, his hands have played a pretty major role in allowing him to complete this incredible journey. Though his calluses had faded by the time I met him in Prague, Czech Republic back in June, he assured me that they were there not long ago (the dirt was from a morning spent foraging for mushrooms in the forests outside of central Prague). He and his partner had simply been taking it easy before flying home for the second time in those 14 months before our meeting (their first point of departure from the trip was Istanbul, Turkey). On the third leg of the trip, Steve is now going it alone.
Though he might be rolling solo now, Steve shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. In the coming months, he will try his hand at trades like blacksmithing, baking, farming and woodworking to see what his natural talents and interests are best suited for. All the while, he’ll head farther south into Spain and Portugal to ride out the winter. Beyond that, Steve’s fate is in the hands of those who decide whether to grant him a visa in the European Union. If no, there’s always the excitement of every traveler’s mysterious Plan B.
Steve addresses his reasons for taking off and the issue of expense in this video that was produced by an Armenian alternative news site.
Sep 15, 2013
Pamukkale, Denizli, Turkey
When Sarah and I met Muhammet, we two were on a stroll under a perfect Turkish summer sky, and his tractor was kicking up dust down the dirt road that divided the surrounding pomegranate fields. All was quiet once his engine quit, and he asked me and my Australian travel buddy where we were from and whether we wanted a ride back to the center of town.
"If I can say something, you should not be out here. Most people are good, but you never know if there is a crazy one, and you’re a long way from town." This part of Denizli was not near the Pamukkale Natural Park travertines, and, therefore, did not draw many tourists. "Come! I will give you my grapes."
Sarah and I exchanged glances that said our walk had been satisfactory, and we hopped up onto his fenders to ride a bumpy sidesaddle back to his house, chatting the whole way about his years of selling kilims (the traditional Turkish carpets) and running a pension in the village before retiring to farm olives, pomegranates, grapes, and other regional delights.
When we three reached the house, we dismounted the grumbling beast and rinsed our hands and two bunches of just-picked grapes under a running spout. His were the sweetest grapes of any I’d eaten in Turkey. We thanked him profusely for the treat, and he wrote down his address and made me promise that I would mail him copies of the pictures I’d taken. He didn’t have an email address, and only his son had a computer.
He took out a stack of old photos and told us a story of how he and a couple of tourists he met a while back had been playing around with hanging cherries from their ears like earrings. His eyes were glittering pools as he spoke. I knew that someday he would be sharing our photos and the story of our meeting with another pair of travelers.
We parted with hugs and a Turkish kiss, once on each side of the face (even sweeter than the grapes), and for the first 100 feet, he kept shouting blessings after us and waving goodbye. He hadn’t sold carpets for many years, but still there was so much hope in hello.
Sep 3, 2013
Göreme, Nevşehir, Turkey
I was sitting on a cafe patio drinking my Turkish coffee and writing postcards to friends and family back home when this man approached me. He commented that he was impressed that I wrote so many post cards in the digital age. We chatted very briefly about his time in New York and San Francisco, and he asked me if I would join him when I had finished with my correspondence. I said I would.
After some time, I laid down my pen, paid my bill, and went to his table. It was there that I learned that he received his education in Scandinavia, then taught there for twenty years, and is now enjoying retirement on cafe patios back in his hometown. This facilitates his greatest wish: “I want everyone to meet good people, to talk freely, that is all.”
After describing his background, Yüksel got a sparkle in his eye and asked me if I knew much about healing. I told him that I knew some, but that I didn’t practice anything like Reiki or massage. He told me that I am strong and sensitive just before pinpointing my exact physical and mental health problems. Here we had talked for maybe 15 minutes and he knew more about my deepest issues than most of my friends and family do. My head was spinning. How could this guy have known all of these things about me?
I started to close off to him a bit, as I was scared by what he had just revealed to me. He could sense that and suggested that we meet tomorrow morning at the same place so that he could show me his home after we drink some coffee or çay. I agreed.
After all, as Yüksel taught me this afternoon, “If we have one window, all we see is the west or east or north or south. We need open windows in all directions. We need more windows everywhere in life.”