In a line of 20-some-year-olds itching to hear rock band Muse at the Webster Theater, Jon stands alone, hands in the pockets of his oversize blue jeans, grey hair neatly pulled in a ponytail.
He’s in Manhattan to see Muse, but he isn’t a die-hard fan like the rest – his years of work in the music industry get him free VIP tickets to concerts around town, and Muse happens to be on the menu tonight. He’s arrived an hour early, calmly waiting for a new experience to digest.
Jon grew up in one of New York City’s many housing projects, almost 200,000 apartments spread across the city intentioned for low-income residents. The projects have been referred to as “physical proof of the city’s crime rates,” “a tax-draining vector of institutionalized mayhem and poverty” and “out of sight and mind.”
Jon is an anomaly – he got out of the projects, got a steady job, married, and moved his family to the New Jersey suburbs. But, unlike others, he would regularly take his kids back to the projects to show them what life was like there.
Yasu’s sneakers pad up the narrow path strewn with bright pink petals newly released from hovering branches. It’s spring on Okinawa’s Akajima (Aka Island)—trees and bushes burst into colors and shapes of endless variety. Entire trees flame orange and yellow; tiny purple bulbs dot fields, the full expression of their beauty a communal effort.
At the end of the winding walkway, Yasu finds himself on a dusty patch of grass overlooking a medley of lush islands and waters fading from green to turquoise to navy. He hears only a light wind and chirping sparrow. Perching his lanky frame on the wooden fence encircling the lookout, he calmly stares at the world in front of him in silence.
The barren slopes of Mount Aso are unforgiving—gusts of wind and sleet to race screaming past ones’ ears to the valley below. Clouds swirl aimlessly from base to tip. In the February dusk, the view is always the same: yellow stunted shrubbery emerges from the dust into a viscous mist.
Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan with a 100km caldera circumference that spits poisonous gases out of the belly of Kyushu Island. The volcano has an unpredictable temper; a no-entry zone circles Nakadake Crater, and the ropeway and closest hiking paths are often closed.
At the base of this breathing, belching giant sits the small town of Aso. Aso’s handful of streets are quiet and grey, even during the day. Life revolves around the main onsen and the single platform train station.
“You can’t save someone else. You can only save yourself,” Kazue says as she guides her pen purposefully across the scrap paper. Her hair is tightly pulled back, exposing concentration on a face of timeless youth.
The diagram complete, she pushes the paper across the table.
Boxes connected by lines and arrows form a wide smiley face. From the “Now” box, one path arches up to “Auto Mode” and an endless path of “negative patterns”. In the opposite direction, the path hits “Manual Mode: Learn about your machine (mind & body) and become a master of yourself”. This path leads to a “Surprise gift from the universe” wrapped in a red package.
Aarif quickly slips on his shoes and walks out of the cramped apartment. He just ate a family dinner with four of his six brothers—the usual rice, curry, chicken—and he has excused himself to go back to his work in the finance department of the Grand Hyatt Muscat.
In slacks and a button-down shirt, dark glasses and gelled hair, Aarif looks decidedly ‘cool’ as he relaxes in the driver’s seat and speeds down Sultan Qaboos Street. Glowing orange light frames the jagged outline of the mountains to the west, and the street lamps flicker on as Muscat transforms from the work and religion of day to the leisure and modern metropolis of night.
Aarif grew up in a traditional Omani family of his parents, seven sons and three daughters. His oldest and youngest siblings are 20 years apart; he falls squarely in the middle. His parents and teenage sisters still live in Nizwá, Oman’s traditional capital nestled in the mountains west of bustling Muscat.
Xiaohui’s natural exuberance is uncontainable. She bounds across the street to greet a tall, lanky man, her arms waving seemingly independent from the rest of her tiny frame.
“As-Salaam Alaikum!” Peace be unto you. She bows slightly, her face radiates warmth.
“Wa-Alaikum Salaam,” Zhanshan replies, with a hint of a smile. And unto you peace.
Xiaohui looks effortlessly hip—if not a tad kitsch—in riding boots poking out from flare jeans with studded hems, her wrists adorned with silver bracelets of all shapes and sizes.
Zhanshan is older than Xiaohui, and their relationship is akin to that of uncle and niece. He pokes fun (“What ‘bling bling’ are you wearing now?”) and she responds with well-rehearsed, exaggerated offense (“You’re so boring…I’m on trend!”).
“I can’t walk for shit,” Mac laughs. “I walk to the bridge and back and it’s like a sharp pain in the hips, you know?”
“I know, I know,” says his friend, empathetically. “When I lie on my side it’s like being stabbed inside with a bunch of keys. What about sex?”
“Well, uh…,” Mac looks out the window.
“Right.” His friend smiles.
Mac’s sitting with his friend of 18 years by a bay window in a tavern in Castle Combe, a tiny village of cottages huddled on one street in a picturesque Wiltshire valley. He’s well put together in a thick woolen jumper and slacks, sitting with perfect posture: back straight, both feet solid on the floor. Only his silver hair is left to its own whims.
Boo-weep boo-weep boo-weep!
. . . .
Boo-weep boo-weep boo-weep!
. . . .
B-WEEP B-WEEP B———
The alarm clock falls to the floor, clanking and bouncing on it’s round frame until she finally catches it. Her strong hands wrestle with the knobs in the dark, setting the hands back to the same time for tomorrow morning. The bed springs croak as she sits back on her former sleeping place.
Huuahh. A quick, tired exhale. And the time for morning reflection is up.
In a traditional bungalow along a winding road, a Japanese noodle maker is fixated on kneading a big ball of cold dough.
His wrinkled hands are thick and strong, and his physique has been shaped over the years of hard work. Yet he shows no signs of fatigue, lips softly pressed together and expression neutral. His shoulders meet his ears as he presses his fists into the dough, the circular rhythm of each hand alternating with the other. It’s a dance he’s practiced for at least seventy years.
His hands become more forgiving as he lifts the dough mass from beneath its center with one hand, letting the sides slowly spread like molasses toward the flour-covered wooden surface below. His face gives away slight hints of frustration—he’s analyzed the texture almost immediately, and it doesn’t quite please him. He continues to knead.
He makes noodles in a modest shop on Naoshima, a peaceful island in Japan’s Inland Sea that is home to only about 3,500 people. The island’s rolling hills can be traversed on foot in under an hour. Naoshima is known for its art museums and outdoor art displays, but this tiny noodle shop stays relatively hidden from all that. It’s been running in much the same way for generations, a house of culinary art.
Walking up the gravel path to Odile’s home is like walking through a secret garden. Branches overhead bow in welcome and faded brown clay pots hold petite trees offering oranges to the awe-struck visitor. Towering bushes relieve the entry from the summer sun and hide any sight of the house from the main gate.
The path gently winds to the left and the home comes into breathtaking view: a two-story wonder, covered in thick ivy that floats nearly horizontal six or seven inches out from the stucco. White checkered window panes are framed with pale green shutters, and more brown pots—this time holding cacti and complex bonsai—complement the traditional red roof.
Odile is the master of her creation: the physical oasis, part-home part-business, that is her property tucked in the hills east of central Marseille.