Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unforgettable Ankara, Part 1

"Let the beauty of what you love be what you do."~Rumi

I couldn't believe my good fortune: I had been invited to participate in an international art exhibition in Ankara, Turkey! What was even more amazing was that I was invited by Raja Bailey, the wife of Canada's Ambassador to Turkey, Mark Bailey. I would be staying at their official residence in Ankara, a city of 5 million people, for a whole week. I had never traveled to this area of the world....what a fabulous opportunity! I packed some small paintings and brought them with me, a total of six of my paintings to add to the cache of artwork for the show.

This exhibition had a two-pronged objective. The first was to raise money for a NGO organization in Ankara that would help to educate young girls. The second reason was to celebrate International Women's Day. What a unique adventure:) I was thrilled to be included! Participating artists came from Syria, The United States, South Africa, Kosovo, Turkey and of course Canada. I was very grateful to Turkish Airlines who flew us to Istanbul and then on to Ankara. I have flown with a great many airlines in the past year and a half and I was extremely impressed with their service. I will not hesitate to travel with them again when I return to Turkey.

As soon as we landed in Ankara I was struck with the temperature and similarity in climate with the area of Ontario that I live in. Throughout my time there the days were cool and overcast with the occasional sunny day. Only once did it really rain in earnest.

Customs in Istanbul was chaos but eventually we did make it to Ankara and were picked up by Husnu, our driver. He proved to be such a lovely gentleman, who spoke excellent English and was very professional. He had a twinkle in his eye and told us a lot about Ankara, Istanbul and the country itself.

Ankara at night
(camera was hand held with no flash, in a moving vehicle)

Little signs of home were seen everywhere

More echoes of Canada in the residence

We met Raja and Mark at the residence and settled into our rooms. The residence was beautiful, comfortable and the staff were all so friendly and welcoming to us. After the week they all felt like family. We unpacked our artwork, selected where the work would hang and then enjoyed the next day with Raja in Ulus and downtown Ankara. We stopped in at a framer's in the downtown core. The poor framer was inundated with the task of framing 23 pieces of art within 8 hours. I don't know how he did it, but he did it! Needless to say when we left he shut down for the day:)

While Raja, Louise, Piril, Barb and Vicky talked with the framer and chose matte colours I wandered around the shops and asked in broken Turkish if the shop owners would mind if I took their photos. Everyone was very nice and agreeable. Tea or çay is ubiquitous in Turkey, and while I was shooting these shopkeepers tea was taken around to different shops and distributed to the gentlemen.

One of the men working in the electrical shop

The other electrical shop worker

After leaving the bewildered framer we traveled to a downtown market before moving on to Ulus, the oldest section of Ankara where there is a large market and a variety of wonderful shops selling all manner of Turkish goods. We perused some vendors selling everything from figs to nuts to tea and herbs. Turkey is famous for many exports, including pistachios, figs, hazelnuts, textiles and Turkish coffee. It was hard not to spend all of our Turkish lira within the first day!

Figs, walnuts, hazelnuts and sultanas

Bolts of fabric in the fabric shop, downtown Ankara
Heading into Ulus. The streets of Ankara were VERY steep in parts

There was a beautiful mixture of aromas
and textures in Ulus

We spent a fabulous afternoon wandering the winding streets of Ulus. It was a glimpse into how I imagined Istanbul might be. It had so much culture and quiet beauty. Side streets wending their way upwards, brightly coloured shutters and doors, and the people were very amenable to having their photos taken.

As far as being vegetarian in a new was reasonably easy to eat meat-free. Almost every restaurant made modifications or something for me that I could eat, which I appreciated. Kebabs seem to be the speciality in Turkey, usually with lamb or some kind of meat. I was surprised that they didn't have vegetable kebabs on menus anywhere. However, I usually made do with a type of flatbread and tomatoes, or a salad, or both. The best part however was the Turkish coffee and apple tea or elma çay, that many cafésserve after the coffee.

I loved the way that this man was reclining

I learned a few basic phrases and words in Turkish that helped me get by with simple interactions with other people and shop owners. Between Mehmet, Husnu and Piril I jotted these sayings down and it made moving about in the city and getting by much easier. I never felt helpless though as basic hand gestures can always help you out in a pinch even if two people are not able to communicate effectively in the same language.

Ankara is a very "Westernized" city and most of it is relatively "new" as well. Other than Ulus and older sections, the city really is very recent compared to Istanbul. I have heard that visitors from countries to the east see Ankara as a very Western city, and visitors from the West see it in the opposite light. Personally I took it for what it was, a bustling city that seemed to never end, filled with families and unique lives, lovely people and new friends.

Gourds hanging at a stall in Ulus
Looking down a street in Ulus

Traditional tea served where we had lunch.
At long last, Turkish Coffee!!!

The turkish coffee that I finally tried was delicious. Normally I don't put sugar in my coffee but with turkish coffee you really must. It offsets the intense bitterness very well. The grounds are at the bottom of the cup extremely fine grind that distinguishes this type of coffee from others.

I will post more photos and stories soon from this amazing journey to Ankara....

"Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent."~Rumi

Monday, March 8, 2010

Arizona and the spell of the Southwest

"Creative people who can't help but explore other mental territories are at greater risk, just as someone who climbs a mountain is more at risk than someone who just walks along a village lane."~R.D. Laing

February can be a rather bleak month. Traditionally I have found it more of a month to endure than enjoy...days of cloud and cold, salt and slipping, standing against the icy winds that whip down between the tall buildings of Bay Street in Toronto.

Last month however I had the chance to go to Tucson, Arizona to visit my dear friends Walt and Billie McCandless. Throughout high school I never went to Florida, to Europe, or to the Caribbean. I didn't mind, as I didn't know what I was missing. However, I have to say, there's nothing quite as refreshing as going for a run in the sun, not a cloud in the sky, 18 degrees out, in the middle of February.

I was thrilled to see Walt and Billie as usual. They are always such gracious hosts, showing me around and letting me do some exploring on my own too. Where you are is only part of the experience. Who you are with is just as, if not more, important. When I visit Walt and Billie I know that there will be lots of discussions about science, human nature, the vagaries of the human condition, laughs, affection and the enjoyment of very special friendship..

Tucson in February is pretty much perfect weather. Cool mornings and evenings, with a daily high of around 18-20 degrees. Plus, as they say, the heat is dry...there's no humidity. You don't even have a chance to sweat. Well, that's an exaggeration but you get my point. Subsequently I found that I had to constantly drink lots of water to stay adequately hydrated.
It was an ongoing battle for sure. This is the same as in Alaska I find. In fact that is one of the many parallels I noticed between the two places.

Walt and Billie's Street in Tucson.

From the moment I landed in Tucson, I noticed the thin air...fresh, but thin. It was not heavy, but had a light quality to it. It was not oppressive at all but pure and clean. I also noticed a lack of air pollution...I could see clearly peaks and mountains on the horizon. That very rarely happens where I live in Southwestern Ontario. In fact, this quality was magnified at night, when stars blanketed the sky as I walked back from the pool to Walt and Billie's, and I gazed upward. I felt as though if I reached out I might touch them, and float away. It made me dizzy, a like visual champagne: sparkling and clear.

Jim, a benevolent gentleman that I met in Tubac,
a bustling community of artisans

Aaron, a good friend of Walt and Billie's arrived shortly after I did. He had purchased a used RV and driven it from Seattle. We are both offbeat and travelers by passion. Aaron is explorer who is always on the move, cerebrally or literally as well.. We hit it off immediately.

A small group of us headed down to Tubac one day. Tubac is very VERY close to the border with Mexico, and we passed police checkpoints on the way back to Tucson. Tubac is a historic town that has a state park, an old mission, and, most notably, a little village of artisans and vendors. I was enthralled with the furniture, art and style of the southwest as there was lots of that unique character found in Tubac.

A beautiful old mission in Tumacacori National Historical Park
Aaron and I had a quick peek around before meeting the rest for dinner.

We had less than an hour to explore Tumacacori. We made the most of the time and then walked back along the highway to the restaurant 1 km away (rather harrowing at times with cars flying past). The mission had some scaffolding and tarps on the outside, indications of restoration activity.

The blue light is coming from the tarp thrown over
scaffolding that was outside of the mission.

It was pretty amazing walking around this mission, thinking of people building it and living their lives there 200 years ago. It is contemplating time in this way that is very humbling and little scary. It helps fuel me to live each day as fully and completely as possible, and to continue to not take anything for granted, most importantly one's health, friend and family.

Here is an old window in one of the buildings adjacent to the main structure.

Aaron and I made our way back to Wisdoms...a family-run restaurant extremely popular with locals. The conversation was convivial and relaxed as the group of us talked about past and upcoming travels, life in Arizona, careers, lives. Walt, Aaron and I discussed the upcoming book on Chris, a book of his photographs and some of my paintings. It is all very exciting and creative, a project that we are all very dedicated to.

Trying to take a self-portrait in the restaurant

The next day we all went to explore Saguaro National Park in the Sonoran Desert. The park and preserve protect 91,000 acres of this very special desert that is home to some very unique flora and fauna, most specifically the saguaro cactus after which is it named.

The saguaro cactus grows in a very specific climate in the an unbelievably narrow margin for growth. We drove around the park and stopped periodically to snap some photos of the landscape. The southwest, which has cast its spell around many artists and visionaries, also left a deep impression upon me. I think perhaps it is its extreme qualities, of temperature, aridity, as well as its pace, the slow seep of stored water into cacti, the flash floods that can rip across the land (the soil is too dry to absorb it quickly enough) all add to its allure....its alien qualities.

In a couple of weeks the desert bloom was going to happen. It is a pity I missed it but these buds, symbols of potential, possess just as much beauty as the flowers in full bloom I think.

You can see why Saguaros are compared to people with outstretched arms. Below you can see what the cactus looks like after it has died, you can see the incredibly tough, fibrous structure underneath its already rough exterior. These plants are capable of holding a huge amount of water inside, over 1 tonne I think, perhaps upwards of 10 tonnes.

The saguaros looked positively skeletal, their insides exposed liked a secret long hidden, finally revealed. As we sat and had a picnic that Aaron and Jenn had brought I walked off a distance, careful weaving around long spikes from prickly pears, marvelling at the indigenous wildlife that thrived in that unique environment.

Prickly Pears are everywhere in this area of the state. I have never eaten them but understand that they are very delicious. The sun was constant, with no clouds in the sky, yet the coolness and breeze kept us comfortable. It is a deceptive feeling though as I was quite burnt the next day, a farmer's tan red and painful on my arms. Live and learn as the saying goes...

A barrel cactus, another type of cactus ubiquitous in the Sonoran Desert.

My time spent in Arizona with Walt, Billie, Aaron, Jenn and their other friends was, like my other visits, very rewarding. Walt played at a Valentine's Day concert on the Saturday night which was a fabulous show. The sense of community and friendship felt between the people in Walt and Billie's life down in Tucson is palpable. It is further proof that these bonds exist for a reason, a purpose, if nothing more than to simply be security in the knowledge that you are cared for and that you care deeply for others. It was a doubly enriching experience to share time with them and to learn and explore a harshly beautiful climate like the Sonoran desert. I look forward to returning next fact, we are going to make it at yearly gathering of joy to share. That's what friends are for, after all...

"Life is partly what we make of it and partly what is made by the friends we choose."~Tennessee Williams