A fellow blogger and travel photographer, recently posted her favorite three photographs (the title above has the British spelling, as does her post). It was Sarah’s entry into a Lens Artists Challenge on her Travel With Me website. I usually don’t participate in these popular themed challenges, reluctant to spend hours looking through gigabytes of pictures and having already done that when I originally set up my website.
The idea of just three favorites has resonated with me, however, swimming around in my brain the past few days. There was no question which three images I would choose. I didn’t need to go back to review gigabytes of digital photos spanning decades of time. And, probably not coincidentally, they each capture the feel of the places I lived internationally. These photos also appear on my home page and photography pages, and were included in posts about those places. I decided they merited another share here, because each comes with a story to tell.
The second day after I arrived in Guatemala City in 2003, hired for a teaching job at an American school, there had been a political demonstration in the streets with tires burning. It kept me from returning to my hotel, and the school’s director briefed our group, recognizing that we may have to be evacuated and sent back to our home countries.
The next day, my third day in the country, I visited the historic city of Antigua, Guatemala on a trip with other teachers before school started. A Guatemalan man sat in front of an ancient church reading a newspaper. I waited for the stream of people walking the street to thin so I could capture this moment. Although I hadn’t planned this, I later noticed that the photo and headline on the newspaper’s front page reported the demonstration, so it’s a bit of history as well. (Click on image to enlarge.)
Karlov Most, the Charles Bridge, the king of bridges, reigns in the center of Prague. I was there to teach English from 2006 through 2008 and often wandered the classic bridge. Dark statues—historic, religious, artistic—mark its edges at regular intervals, watching over the multitude, blessing or threatening, peaceful or bellicose, some with golden halos, others with outstretched arms and knobby fingers. Pigeons perched on their heads and streaked their shoulders, as if ridiculing their pompous poses.
The bridge’s sturdy promenade was a lively place to walk, crowded with tourists, buskers and vendors; no cars allowed. Musicians played and stalls offered jewelry, postcards, t-shirts, beaded bottles and pillboxes, toy-sized pastel buildings, and miniature astronomical clocks. Beggars humbly knelt on the ground face down, seeking no eye contact, crouching at the feet of passersby, hat extended in outstretched arms. Local artists displayed photographs and watercolors; I was drawn to the ones of the bridge at dawn, when no one was around, the statues appearing in shadowy mysterious shapes obscured by fog. One morning, I was able to capture that image myself, in the quiet hours before the bridge become busy.
When I taught in Japan from 2008 to 2011, I lived in Fuchu, a small city about twenty-five minutes west of Tokyo by train. I would stop at one of the eateries surrounding the train station some nights for a cheap, oishi (delicious), seafood dinner, fast-food Japanese style. One narrow lane in the evening darkness glowed with light from restaurant and shop windows, colorful banners hung, stairs up to an izakaya above, a stand-up bar on the corner with a friendly host of indeterminable gender.
I would slide onto a stool at the counter at a tempura place that served lightly breaded and fried seafood and vegetables piled on top of a rice bowl, or at kaiten sushi, which I called the sushi train, where chefs cook in the middle of the room, surrounded by an oval conveyor belt of small plates bearing dishes. Just lift off the one you want, then stack up the empty plates as you finish. I soon learned to call out my orders to the chef, like the locals, so it would be made fresh, instead of plucking something off the belt that had been going around and around for a while. Help yourself to green tea, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and wasabi, the neon green hot stuff. The staff could tell the prices by the patterns on your used pile of dishes, adding them up when you leave.
Even when I wasn’t looking for dinner, I often walked that street. Colorful vertical store signs and banners with the lyrical shapes of calligraphy looked like flags waving, perhaps even more beautiful without knowing their meaning. Fluttering, brushed signs on little rectangles of paper or cloth hung along windows or dangled from awnings, advertising specials or sales.
Returning to teach another semester in Japan in 2014, the demolition of one of my most beloved hangouts began: the narrow street radiating out from the train station once so full of tiny eateries and bars. The station would be expanded, mall style, to include some of the businesses that had prospered there in a new modern space, an entirely different atmosphere. As my friend pointed out to the bartender as we shared a drink one night, my photograph of that busy little street with the colorful waving signs was now an homage to history.
I couldn’t resist sharing one more favorite photo from Japan, one that captures the simplicity, serenity, and history of the culture. Similar to the philosophy and design of Ikebana flower arranging, this image, taken in the town of Nikko, among historic temples, shows a stone lantern with vivid red maple leaves in autumn.
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