A year today, northern India introduced me to a realm of colour I’d never known.
It began here in Varanasi, or Banaras or Kashi as it’s also called — undulating sermons and shapeshifting saris, as sensuous as the fenugreek and mango spiralling out of earthen kitchens and into woven baskets leading to the river. This place, if I can call it a place, embodies the spiritual nucleus of India — a presence very much felt through the cyclical rituals honouring life and death, and in the kind of utter seriousness expected of a time-tested undertaking. Sleepy atoms give way to nightfall, stoked with all the internal rumbling of incense. Then, sunrise — the moment of transcendence for pilgrims embarking on their “holy dip” in the Ganges. Body and mind purified.
When the tide shifts from pink to yellow, a renewed hunger calls. We dock and make a slow, sobering trek to the Open Hand Cafe for a sumptuously drawn out breakfast. I love the little communion among travellers on mornings like these — all of us silently appreciative of how we were led individually to this moment, our eyes laid bare to magic on the horizon of the Ganges. How can something as inconsequential as breakfast later form the collision of our lives? A sunrise? The act of being? We knew this at the time, or we liked to think that we did. We left profoundly unchanged, of course — no great epiphany, no gateway to nirvana. There and then, the sun crept up, dispelling the surrealism from hours before. The day sweltered on. For a little longer we remained, sipping at the appropriately scalding catharsis of a masala chai, leaning into our chairs, and taking it all in. ⬩
“I feel a kind of freedom here inside. Maybe it’s the colours. I live on the seventh floor, facing the sea. I see a blue ribbon.”
Alexandra is a resident at Walden 7, a social housing complex inspired in part by science fiction and philosophical ruminations in the Algerian desert (and in its clash of turquoise and tajine red pays a clear homage to earth and sky). The intricate designs create a shifting ambiance — states which change with the rise and fall of the sun. In the afternoon, the lower courtyards feature pockets of cavernous light, while upper corridors bake like Maghrebi earthenware.
After the grand tour, Alexandra and I did our fair share of afternoon reclining at a cafe overlooking the cubist exterior. It was a Friday, brisk but sunny. We often discuss architecture in the vein of aesthetics and its grander intentions, but something I’ve always loved about the physical space is how it impacts our inner states of fulfillment. Walden 7 is meditative for Alexandra, who professes a deep love for gardening on the terraces and courtyards. In her case, the utopic vision laid out by Bofill is very much an interior one. “I love being with people, but I feel good alone,” she says. “To see people, to know them or not. Here, I have the opportunity to do that.” ⬩
Mexico City, Mexico
My favorite expression in Mexico is "uff." See, hear, or drink something divine? Uff. Tacos? Uff. Tacos are, in Mexico and much of the culinary world, gastronomical forces to be reckoned with – so much so that they have encyclopedias (no doubt slicked in salsa and lard by now) written about them. In the western world, they often belong to contrasting forces – the fast food conglomerate camp and nouveau chic restaurants of the Baja fish variety. It's in Mexico where the taco is universal – at once strong and nuanced, top tier and simple fare.
Our guide Paco brings us to try the tacos de canasta. This special variety of taco finds its supposed origins in mining communities, where packing lunch for working men meant placing the ready-made tacos into a basket, then covering it with a cloth or plastic sheet to keep warm. In essence, that's how they're prepared today: steamed or "sweated" inside a basket, which allows condensation to stew the fillings and draw out its flavors. Here, the menu includes chicharron with adobo or salsa verde, mashed potatoes, and refried beans. How to adequately describe it all? Uff. ⬩
"What kind of cheese do you use?" inquires a guest to Nuno, one of four cooks crammed behind the counter. "A lot," he says, before whipping up some more. The meal in question? A cachorrinho, or 'little hotdog,' somewhat of a simple and delectable Porto institution: sausage and cheese wedged between perfectly crispy bread, finished with a dollop of spicy sauce and a proper pint of beer.
Seated on a bar stool facing the workings of the kitchen, a man next to me recalls his teenage years here: cachorrinho and a beer, like clockwork, after a night at the cinema and sometimes before. This establishment, and indeed so many of the restaurants and shops upholding this city, reminds me of the way food connects the fabric of us all. It recalls one special visitor, too – the late Anthony Bourdain, and his unfaltering belief in food's ability to unite us. "This one's for Anthony," says someone at the bar. We clink each other's glasses and drink up. ⬩
This is the road joining Kagbeni, a medieval oasis town blooming with the distinctly autumnal, accented by its ochre monastery and sesame potatoes and the confluence of two rivers — and Muktinath, an ancient Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage site known for its symbiotic union of the earth’s natural elements. It’s been especially rewarding venturing through the Himalayas and taking stock of the grace with which the terrain shifts — often suddenly and spectacularly, a magnificent fervour of rhododendron forests and alpine grass and juniper scrubs and evergreens. Here in this arid and desert-like section of lower Mustang, I’m feeling a little Mad Max. (Aqua cola, thankfully, is plentiful.) Irregardless of what pop culture artifacts come to mind, this stretch of gravel and dust — a snake-like ridge leading onward to the Kali Gandaki valley — is among the circuit trek’s most exceptional. It’s a personal favourite of mine, though I confess I’m sweet on the buttered teas and fried bread readily available in Kagbeni. I’ve got a spot for the valley, too, coarse & winding like it is, which in spite of the sepia tones could hardly be monotonous.
Most of all, I’m charmed by the Tibetan-influenced way of life that’s taken root. Geography implicates itself so strongly in Nepal. Historically, the roads and trade routes facilitated immense cultural overlap in regions or conversely isolated them, and I found it fascinating to see that firsthand: how a tall mountain pass so cleanly distinguishes the diversity of the terrain and the people who walk on it. It’s food for thought I’m tinkering with in the next little while, but in the meantime I’ve landed in Cambodia for a long-anticipated riverside unwind (plus some fish amok, badias, and an obnoxiously large straw coconut if I can help it). ⬩