In the Inland Sea a piece of earth floats, one of thousands. It is, however, unique to itself. Teshima island nestles between Japan’s main islands of Honshu and Shikoku; its pockmarked paved roads allow a complete tour in under an hour by car, olive and mandarin orchards patchwork its hills, and traditional wooden homes line its hush, narrow alleys and roads.
Down one such alley is Teshima no Mado (豊島のまど、 The Window of Teshima). The entryway opens to a spacious room with walls of dark, unpolished wood and a high corrugated metal ceiling. Soft leather couches form two sitting areas from which customers can view items from the island covering the walls. Labels are carefully affixed alongside: “carrying a wooden rack on the back”; “crab cage”; “anchor”; “conger eel fishing”; “engine drive unit”; “scissors to cut the hair of sheep”; “a getting tool of Mamakani”.
Down the hallway, a room full of recording equipment displays the work of Syo Yoshihama: an Okinawan artist who came to Teshima periodically over three years to record natural sounds of the island. He created two tracks from these sounds alone: “Sounds of the Insects” and “Birds & Harbour”. The scores are mounted on the wall.
Aki Rika was born and raised on the island, and she runs Teshima no Mado out of her father’s house. The space is the very definition of multifunctional: art both old and new line the walls, a separate room is dedicated to music and sound engineering, Aki’s café service provides homemade food and drinks for locals and visitors, and the back rooms serve as her home. The place is creative to the core: as a gust of wind rushes by, old electric lights flicker on—a homemade project where nature becomes art.
The dal bhat arrives exactly as ordered, at 18:30 sharp. It defies the usual laid-back delay of dinnertime in Nepalese trekking villages. It at once raises the bar of service standards and lowers the familial jostling between visitor and visited. It reveals that Gurung Cottage is a different guesthouse, unique in mindset and execution.
This simple meal of steamed rice and lentil soup is placed on an ordinary wooden table in a small cottage overlooking a deep, lush valley where the Mardi River flows down from the Annapurna Base Camp: a Himalayan bowl surrounded by some of Nepal’s tallest peaks. Gurung Cottage is in Ghandruk, a natural stopping place for trekkers before they venture to more challenging altitudes.
The sun is falling fast in the horizon, but she can only sense its descent behind the dark gray sack of clouds. She’s leaning against the outside window frame of the refuge, perched on a wooden bench with her feet up. Her petite frame dressed lightly in a flowered jersey dress and V-neck jumper, face glowing from her first day on the trail, she welcomes gusts of wind as they pour in from the Mediterranean, over the cliff’s edge, into her face and through her hair.
A deep sigh releases the physical exhaustion, the cluttered thoughts, the stresses of her week, her year, her life.
His paces proceed at a solid andante. Not for apathy, but for freedom from hurriedness altogether. With each step, his shoes sag deeply to the arches, his gray polo shirt dampens from the exertion. For him, the trail is well-worn, every turn and step recorded in memory past a network of friendly faces along the way.
“Namaste. Are you well?” He greets, holding another’s hand in his for a long, easing pause. His dark eyes peer from under his canvas cap, searching to make sure the other is okay behind their smile. This same, calm ease continues as he pushes step on step up a mountain, as rainclouds threaten, and even as dinner delays past 9pm. All is well with friends along the route, in the Annapurna mountains he calls home.
Purna shares his name, which means “perfect” or “complete”, with these peaks through which he treks. The Himalayan Annapurna massif includes one peak over 8,000 metres, 13 over 7,000 metres, and another 16 peaks surpassing 6,000 metres. This breathtaking range extends 55 kilometres, forming the first and largest conservation area in Nepal.
Massimo’s smile beams a mélange of emotions: glee, anticipation, joy, content, calm serenity. He gestures to a stone shed full of rusting tools—every square foot of vaulted wall space is adorned with tools of odd shapes and sizes, down the length of the 20-foot shed.
With a stark language barrier, it’s impossible to fully understand the purpose of each iron bar and plate. But, as he excitedly rambles in Italian, with the odd English word thrown in here and there, his love for this space is obvious. This is his shed of memories and dreams, his “treasures,” he says.
Massimo lives with his wife in Poppi, a town of just around 6,000 people. It takes over two hours to get to Poppi from Florence by car, bumping along narrow, winding roads. First, the castle appears on a hill in the centre of a valley. And then, around it, the ancient buildings of the town spill down the hill slopes, virtually untouched over centuries—mercifully hidden from the Tuscany tourist track. At the foot of the hill outside the city walls, the Arno River draws a border between the old and new structures.
In a windowless cave beneath the old city of Prague, a concert of two guitars is set to begin. Candlelight plays on ancient stone walls adorned with the work of local painters, a welcome to all art.
Acoustic guitar in lap, Milada sits at a long table in the centre of the room. Her duet partner is stuck in traffic, leaving her to play solo tonight. She adjusts her long, flowing knit jumper and takes a deep breath. Softly, deliberately, she introduces her first song: a melodic Czech folk tune patterned with precise pickings and strong undertones.
Tonight’s concert is no ordinary performance. It’s a communication between an artist and a lean audience of two sitting not three feet across the table from her. Akin to dining with a new acquaintance, but the language is music and the medium vulnerability. Low attendance and a missing guitarist are minor obstacles, or perhaps a blessing.
Notes vault from each string, striking crisp against the curved ceiling and resonating on six ears. The result is a different sound, born from an intent not to be heard by many, but to be listened to by few.
The buildings that stand along the Northern Elbe in Hamburg’s city centre blend seamlessly into the gray winter sky and concrete harbour pathways. Row after row of black, dirty beige, mud brown and charcoal exteriors, spotted with rectangular windows emitting small hopes of light through the glass. A separated highway stands between the homes and the water, raucous during the day and eerie at night.
But then, suddenly, a burst of colour. As the highway reaches St. Pauli Fishmarket, a narrow alley breaks away, lined by buildings painted as if emotions themselves made up the palette. Blue, red, yellow – the bright primary colors of childhood. The side of the most visible building is painted bright yellow, and a contrasting red anchor stands resolute: ‘HERE TO STAY’, it reads.
This cobblestone street has become home to refugees, and they’ve painted beautiful graffiti on almost every flat surface possible. Outside one of the buildings, a group of young men stand together. Hands in pockets, they shuffle their feet, throw a joke to a buddy in Arabic, look out to the harbour, and pace back and forth. They’ve been hanging around the same place most of the day, without much to do.
A two-storey farmhouse sits in a foot of snow up a winding road in Laugarvatn – a small Icelandic town of scattered houses between a broad set of hills and a T-shaped lake. The winter storm has just ended, the snow has settled after its near-horizontal, pummeling descent from the sky, and the stars shine brightly in the crisp air.
At first, the house appears empty – a sparse and silent wooden entryway opens to a switchback staircase. On the second floor, a handful of diners taste beef fresh from the cows and eggs straight from the chickens in their coop. A single waitress, no more than 18 years old, calmly shuttles food to and from the single occupied table.
Snæbjörn and Björg run their inn along with their two children and their spouses. Proud – yet not boastful – plaques on the wall share short introductions and a photograph of each couple. One daughter is strikingly Icelandic as the foreigner would imagine: blonde hair, bright eyes, pale skin. The other is a beautiful brunette with round, warm eyes.
The young blonde daughter, Día, is quietly arranging items at the check-in desk downstairs. It’s 8:30pm and she’s the only family member in sight. She has a slight though strong build. Her smooth hair is pulled loosely in a braid that grazes her left ear and lays across her collarbone.
She operates quietly and calmly. At first she seems shy and reserved, but with a small prompt she begins to explain the tensions of Iceland’s recent tourism push – a topic she clearly follows closely.
The debate is a passionate one: tourists flooding in from free stop-over flights and cruise ships have potential to bring in tens of millions of euros per year and businesses and the government are eager to benefit. The government is also hoping for a part – over the past few years it has increased tariffs and taxes on tourism-related profits from accommodation to transportation.
“People are always talking about the tourism tax, some people thing it’s a good idea and others don’t. This is the main political debate right now.” Día gives a wry smile.
On the other side, people are concerned that the taxes will ultimately hurt businesses, and that heavy tourist traffic especially during the high season will damage the very environmental sights foreigners have come to see.
“Many areas in Iceland right now are just open, anyone can go there. The land is not well protected, so it is easy to hurt.” As she explains the debate, she subtly devotes more time to the need to protect Iceland’s natural wonders, even though the family business itself depends on tourists. Still, it’s hard to tell for sure which side she stands on.
In the small, first-floor basement around the corner from Día’s desk, a freezer is filled to the brim with neat rows of homemade ice cream in biodegradable containers. Each flavour has been written in big, round letters on the lids in blue ballpoint pen. Looking through the large, adjacent windows puts one face-to-face with a dozen cows, grazing peacefully in roomy stalls, mercifully protected from the winter chill.
Hua walks into the classroom shivering and unsmiling. His faded, baggy track pants swish as he quickly finds his seat—always the same one—near the window, showered in sunlight.
With a sigh, he wipes his shiny head and cheeks burnt red from the cold. He pulls a notebook from his backpack, holds it open in front of his chest, neck craned down to read. It’s a comically uncomfortable position to observe.
Fifteen minutes later, the class is full of students from all corners of the world with one thing in common: they’re at least half the age of retired Hua.
She stands on the cliff’s edge, observing closely one amidst hundreds of thousands of birds. Her eyes thoughtfully stare past the oncoming wind to a grey baby tucked beneath its mother’s breast – a black speck most wouldn’t notice, curled in a nest balancing in perfect precariousness on a slate embedded in the sharp rock, wildly alive.
“That one’s four months old,” she says, “I was here the day it was born.”
This is the eastern edge of the North American world, a land bordered by cliffs that face the open sea. Apart from the capital, St. John’s, and the towns scattered along pot-holed highways, Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula is a vista of earth sculpted by only the wind.