Tag Archives: urbansketching

If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

Since the last couple of days, the sun has been blazing down on us in Seoul and it is becoming unbearably hot. I watched the temperature rise from the pleasant 26 degrees with soft mornings and breezy evenings to now 34 degrees when the air feels like it has its clammy fingers wrapped around our necks. Every other day, there’s an ‘Emergency Alert’ text message on the phone warning us about a heat wave, asking us to stay indoors and hydrated.

And yet, I thought, how hot could it be? When I tell people I am from India, they say, “Isn’t it hotter there?” Much hotter, I say. “Then this should feel nothing!“, they say. So I left the house one day with a sketchbook and pen and headed towards Bukchon Hanok Village.

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When I reached Anguk station it was already 2 in the afternoon. The roads were empty except for construction workers and few lobster red tourists walking doggedly with a map of Bukchon in one hand and a hand fan in another.

Completely disoriented by the blinding sun and blistering heat, I decided to fold away my own map and follow them. But they – a group of three women and I should’ve known – led me to a souvenir stall first, then to an ice cream shop and finally to a jewellery store where I abandoned them and decided to take matters into my own two hopelessly clammy hands.

For a person who doesn’t sweat easily, I was melting like a candle and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

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Sketching with the help of water, a hand fan and a toothless grandma by my side

Bless the kind staff of Emart, where I went in purely for the air-conditioning but pretended to closely inspect melons, for giving me directions to Bukchon. “..keep going straight and turn left. Just 5 mins.”, they said. I bought bottles of mineral water to show my appreciation. Melons were expensive.

So once again, I was on the road, in the furnace, but this time with dry armpits. And while that lasted, I managed to find myself a spot in the shade on this quiet alley called Bukchon-ro 11da-gil.

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

Travelers who haven’t visited Seoul yet may already have seen pictures of Bukchon Hanok Village on every guidebook, magazine and internet article describing Seoul. This area has a large cluster of hanok or traditional Korean wooden houses dating from the Joseon dynasty. These houses are not only picturesque but have been so beautifully preserved that a stroll down the narrow winding alleys they are lined with may well feel like time travel, especially if you arrive at an ungodly hour like I did and get the place entirely to yourself sans selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be something?

It was. I hardly saw anything or anyone for the entire hour I sat on this street corner sketching except two stray cats, an SUV and the distant figure of a person hobbling in my direction. It was easy to imagine what a 600 years old office rush hour would look like –  noblemen and high ranking government officials emerging out of these houses while adjusting their elegant silk court uniforms and hurrying towards the royal palace – but my brain cells were too dehydrated to carry on with the mental imagery.

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

The air was still. And clingy. There was no respite even in the shade. The thought of quitting clouded my vision such that I lost sight of the lone approaching figure that was now standing behind me. Dressed in a lemon yellow floral patterned dress was this slightly bent, excessively wrinkled toothless grandma looking intently at the sketchbook on my lap and then matching my drawing with the scene in front. With a nod of her head she asks me to go on.

Umm..no, see it’s too hot. I was leaving..“, I say to her pretending to pack up but she keeps nodding and pointing to my dip pen. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Sigh! I feel like the performer who’s obligated to perform because one person showed up.

But sometimes that one person is plenty, if they care. So I start again. Grandma leans over with interest or to compensate for her failing eyesight. More nodding. And smiling. She looks pleased. So I keep going like a 5 year old being watched while she finishes her school homework. Grandma sticks by me, sometimes pointing out features I missed drawing or decided to overlook. A stickler for details, this one.

When I finish the drawing I was giving up on a while back, she was still there grinning ear to ear. I could see her gums.

 

The girl with the selfie stick

told me there was going to be a parade.

What parade?

I am the kind of a person who likes to be prepared. Wikipedia, Google maps, subway routes and the weather app – all had been read and consulted with before I got here, inside Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s four royal palaces to sketch with a bunch of local artists.

Then how did I skip the part about this parade? An oversight perhaps. All I know is finding a gaping hole in my pre-trip research, something I am a self-confessed expert of had taken the wind out of my sails was a wee bit soul crushing.

Deoksugung Palace

Junghwamun Gate inside Deoksugung Palace, Seoul.

It’s the changing of guards ceremony. Happens thrice a day…here they come“, she offered kindly, mistaking incredulity for curiosity. Wedged between her body and her thin arm was a fat Japanese guidebook on Korea.

I could already hear the drums and the sound of marching footsteps round the corner. Grabbing a bench facing the mighty Junghwamun – the inner palace gate leading to the main throne hall – I quickly laid out my sketching gear and waited with a dip pen and a bottle of ink in hand. The Japanese tourist had her phone propped up with a selfie stick and was standing by the road, also waiting. You can see her in my sketch.

As the sightly procession of uniformed guards carrying colourful flags passed us by, we captured the event in our own way.

Before leaving she asked me if I was a tourist too and though I still feel like one, I found myself savouring the fact that I wasn’t and therefore could visit this palace and watch this ceremony as many times as I wanted.

What was even more uplifting was when I reached inside by bag and touched the reassuring crook handle of my umbrella. “Wasn’t it supposed to…”. 

After several balmy days, it had rained very heavily that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She made me look fat

Sometimes while doing the most inane tasks like staring at your toe nails for example, have you ever been stricken with a surge of creative energy that makes you feel you could do anything?

I have and before it fizzled out I rode with it and some sketching supplies on the subway to Hoehyeon station, emerged out of Exit 5 and walked straight into a noisy, overcrowded, confusing maze called Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest traditional market with 600 years of history.

The first order of business was to orient myself and then locate a discreet corner from where I could sketch without being in the way of either the vendors or the shoppers. I got hopelessly lost instead which wasn’t exactly surprising considering I was a first time visitor to a market that has over 10,000 stores and is visited by 300,000 people a day.

Namdaemun Market

Sketching on Fashion Street in Namdaemun Market, Seoul

To give you a idea, here’s a list of the items I saw being sold on just one of the streets – hats (all kinds imaginable and more), fur coats, dried nuts, dumplings, spectacles, stone seals, eerie looking ginseng with their sinewy roots stored in clear glass jars and miles of kitchen utensils. I was beginning to believe in the saying that if you don’t find it in Namdaemun Market, you won’t find it anywhere in Seoul.

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View from my corner on Fashion Street.

A map, which I had snagged from the tourist information centre in the meantime showed entire alleys and streets dedicated to cameras, bedding items, watches and jewellery, mountain climbing equipments, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, stationaries and more.

When I spotted yards of army green stretched out in the form of military uniforms, T-shirts, caps, blankets, boots, sacks, compasses, watches and telescopes, I knew I had hit the ‘Military Uniform Street’ on my way back from the ‘Fish and Stew Alley’. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish stew, one of Namdaemun Market’s famed food offerings along with Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup) have to wait for my next visit.

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Namdaemun Market in Seoul – Korea’s largest traditional market. Drawn with dip pen and ink.

This visit was all about channeling my chance ebullience fuelled by the mood enhancing amino acid in my matcha latte for all I knew and perhaps the fact that I had been feeling pretty sketch-deprived lately. Seoul is still new to me. I don’t know the best spots to sketch from yet. Finding out can be fun but sometimes exhausting too when you just want to get down to business!

‘Fashion Street’ had one little corner squeezed in between a fur coat vendor, shirt, pants and coat seller and a shop selling pink and cutesy Mickey mouse themed merchandise from where I made this drawing. Tons of people came to look and showed various signs of appreciation though I didn’t understand a word they said. What I clearly did understand simply because some things transcend languages, was when fur coat vendor in his excitement dragged Mickey mouse lady by the arm to show how I had put her in my sketch and she self consciously touched her waist and said, “She made me look fat!” and marched off.

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet company of strangers

may sound oxymoronic in isolation but in the context of my creative life, it is the most heartening spin-off.

Just the other day I was at Newton Food Centre, a popular hawker centre in Singapore to tend to an urgent and irrepressible desire of eating handmade meatball noodles. And to combat the heat from the red chillies floating in my gravy I ordered a glass of lime juice from San Ren Cold and Hot Dessert Stall, where in between taking orders the lady boss was brashly chopping water chestnuts with a gleaming pocket knife on the same table where I was seated.

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The lady from San Ren Hot and Cold Dessert Stall chopping water chestnuts

Even though we were only a few inches apart, as far as she was concerned I was a fly on the wall. But to me she was a fine subject, one that I hoped would hold her posture long enough to warrant a quick sketch.

“Drawing me, ah?” she said to no one in particular. The words were tossed in the air for someone, mostly me because I was the only one sketching, to catch and respond.  When I looked up I wondered to myself if I had ever in the past wanted someone’s tightened jaws and deeply furrowed eyebrows to relax so badly. All across the table lay freshly hacked pieces of water chestnuts.

Only the ones sealed inside transparent packets with green trimmings remained whole and even they knew what was coming and shrivelled a little in fright. Not wanting to share the fate of mutilated chestnuts I said to the lady as bravely as I could that I hoped she didn’t mind me drawing her.

But I doubt she heard me because I didn’t hear myself.

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(L) A San Ren Dessert stall patron eating Cheng Tng

My mumble was cut short by another retort, not directed at me, yet again. I was still the fly on the wall. “Looks like me ah!..come, look, look” said San Ren’s lady boss and the tormenter of countless water chestnuts in an urgent tone to a uniformed elderly cleaning lady who was clearing our table.

In exchange of a short cursory nod she had pulled my sketchbook away from my hands and was coarsely flipping through the pages.

The white haired cleaning lady joined in and because we didn’t speak each other’s language instead of words she offered me the sweetest smile of approval and chuckled with glee at my most recent work. Then she summoned every stall owner within 50 feet to check out what I was doing.

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An elderly cleaning lady (in uniform) at Newton Food Centre aka ‘auntie’ flipping through my sketchbook.

Meanwhile having retrieved my sketchbook I got back to work again. A patron of San Ren dessert stall was wolfing down a sweet bowl of Cheng Tng. I sketched him and then some random people waiting for their food or eating but it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on.

When sketching people I try to be as discreet as possible, so as to not make my subjects uncomfortable in any way but this is hard when you have a conspicuous audience made up of bulky, oil stained shorts and t-shirt clad, cleaver wielding stall owners smelling of garlic, palm oil and sambal standing behind you, rather hunched over, following every mark you make on your sketchbook and immediately matching it with the subject by looking at that person directly in the face until he or she feels like a mounted taxidermy exhibit.

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Lunching at Newton Food Centre

From their enthusiastic nods and thumps ups, I knew my hawker center audience meant well but any one I tried to sketch under their intense scrutiny left in a jiffy. “Sketch auntie’, ordered San Ren’s lady boss offering the elderly cleaning lady to be my next subject.

I didn’t fail to notice that the knife and the water chestnuts had been put away. Maybe she was finally warming up to me and if sketching ‘auntie’ would keep the knife under wraps I was happy to oblige. Only auntie didn’t have the luxury of posing for a portrait. Dirty plates beckoned. So we parted with a hug. When her kind eyes met mine, I think she seemed a little proud of me.

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Newton Food Centre, Singapore

I went to Newton Food Centre that day to fill my belly but came back with a fuller heart. It is true of every country I visit or every place I go with my sketchbook. It does not matter if I speak the language or not, whether I look like the locals or not, just by sitting among people and drawing in their midst I’ve been accepted and spurred on by total strangers, even the ones that don’t bond so easily.

As I got up to leave, the San Ren lady spoke again.”Come back soon”. It sounded more like a grunt than an entreaty. Only this time she looked straight at me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How far would you go

to get yourself a sketch? I’ve faced some uncomfortable situations trying to finish a drawing when conditions have been less than ideal. And by that I don’t mean having to draw my Martini glass because drawing anything else would need craning my neck from time to time, and wouldn’t that be an errant imposition? No, I didn’t mean that at all!

I’m alluding to conditions slightly more disagreeable, situations where you’d need to muster the will to see through the process, and in my case the likes of trying to find a smidgen of dry space to stand on and crack open my sketchbook inside Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and having to make do with a slick pavement of fish scales, grime and dark coagulated blood from the monstrous piles of tuna flesh stacked on a handcart behind me. Or squinting my eyes to guard the midday sun in Mumbai’s blistering heat to capture the Gateway of India. Or hanging from a kiddy stool typical of Melbourne’s laneway cafes for half an hour and having my feet stomped upon by countless tourists incessantly just to get that pretty patisserie across the road on paper.

I would go on with my exhibition of bravado for the sake of art but I rather not. My bragging rights have been put into perspective after reading viral posts about artists who’ve ventured into war zones, conflict-ridden territories and uninhabitable climes to report, record and interpret what they see of this world through absolutely fetching drawings.

Well, let’s just say we’ve all endured different degrees of discomfort in the process of making art en plein air. And just as these instances remain etched in memory soaking in masochistic pleasure juices, so are the times that deprive us of them, the times when everything go right, the environment is ideal. Rare they may be, but definitely not extinct. Once in a long while there’ll be a perfect view spread right in front of you and although it’ll be midday and the afternoon heat will char your skin as if on fire, the branches of a raintree in the corner will be aligned such that the sun will be blocked out and on that very spot of shade will stand a table with a lone chair that by some astonishing stroke of luck will be unoccupied.

What do you do when that happens? This below is what I did –

Shophouses on Tyrwhitt Road

Shophouses on Tyrwhitt Road in Jalan Besar sketched from a foodcourt that faces this view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trip to the Antipodes series : New Zealand (part I)

1st January 2015 : Sydney to Christchurch –  As you can see from my sketch I started the year with a tall glass of promising ‘Green and Lean’ juice at Lumiere Cafe on Bourke Street. Five seconds later, a massive portion of Egg Benedict followed. New Year resolutions be damned.

To work that off we voted for a walk from City Hall to Sydney Opera House and see the iconic building one last time. What seemed like a great idea, gradually lost its appeal as the day became hotter. Most shops were closed and there were understandably few people on the streets after last night’s revelries, making our stroll even less fun. The chilled passion fruit smoothie at Starbucks saved me from passing out before the flight.

Sydney to Christchurch / 1st Jan : Highlight of the day was picking up Charlie from the airport.

Sydney to Christchurch / 1st Jan : Picking up Charlie from Christchurch airport was the only highlight of the day.

And then – Kia Ora New Zealand! We picked up Charlie, our rental car from Christchurch airport around midnight. John Steinbeck may have something to do with my naming our red Toyota Corolla. Charlie’s Odometer Reading showed : 43300Km at the time of pick up. I kept a record of the readings on my sketchbook to gauge how much we drove each day.

2nd January 2015 : Hanging out in Christchurch –  The scars of the 2011 earthquake, were prominent on Christchurch. Vast spaces lay bare in between buildings. We walked past piles of rubble, damaged structures, collapsed, stripped to the core with iron rods sticking out of them. It was heartbreaking especially the plight of the 100 plus years old Christchurch Cathedral. Outside these cordoned off areas containing the wreckage, the story was one of resilience and hope.

The Re:start mall seemed such a beacon. Everything from food, carpets, sweaters, shoes, clothes, souvenirs and kiwi knick knacks were sold from inside of colourful shipping containers! We shared a bench with a family from Wellington and sipped lemonade right in front of a bright red metal box that had become the home for Scorpio books.

Christchurch / 2nd Jan : We had dinner at Indian Sumner, an Indian restaurant at Sumner. After surviving on Egg Benedict, Fish and Chips, sandwiches, wraps and burgers for days, a slice of home felt heavenly.

Christchurch / 2nd Jan : We had dinner at Indian Sumner, an Indian restaurant at Sumner. After surviving on Egg Benedict, Fish and Chips, sandwiches, wraps and burgers for days, a slice of home felt heavenly.

If there’s one place I’d like to return to in Christchurch, it would be the Risingholme garden, inside the Botanical garden. The serenity of nature, the meditative silence and the feeling of being minuscule, inconsequential amid the giant oaks, cedars, beeches and Spanish chestnut will remain special. I flitted from one tree to another, hugging, smelling, caressing their massive trunks, finally settling under the shade of Cedrus Atlantica, from where this sketch was done.

In the evening, Charlie drove us to Sumner – a pretty seaside suburb of Christchurch, about 12 km away. We watched a dramatic sunset and walked on the long beach in the golden light, listening to waves violently crash against the jagged rocks. It was cold, so we huddled up close to each other and held hands. For a little while, the poignant reminders of a brutal calamity writ large upon Christchurch was forgotten.

3rd January 2015 : Onwards to Lake Tekapo  – Black Betty, a stone’s throw from Southwark Apartments, was open for business, post new year. We were among the firsts to show up. The gothic accents were interesting but thankfully not overpowering for detractors. The hot chocolate and blueberry muffins lived up to the great reviews.

But we didn’t want to fill up because our next stop was Lyttelton Farmers Market, in the port town of Lyttelton, about 12 Km away. I was so enamoured with Sue’s marinated olives that we spent an inordinate amount of time at her stall. It was very hard to turn away from the rest of her wares – semi-dried tomatoes, dolmades, marinated artichokes, several kinds of dips and hummus – everything fresh, fragrant, glistening and ready to eat! “I used to own a cafe there (apparently the legendary Volcano Cafe)“, she said pointing to her right. Then added “..but after the earthquake destroyed it, I do this.” Sue has developed the volcano brand of delicatessen food that she sells at various farmers markets.  After she helped me pick out 4 different kinds of olives, I sketched her little set up. She graciously signed her name under it, at my request.

Christchurch to Lake Tekapo / 3rd Jan : We were lucky to be able to experience something as local as a farmer's market at Lyttelton. Meeting the people, chatting with them, hearing their stories and, watching them go about their business trumps any tourist attraction. And sketching is the fastest way to make friends!

Christchurch to Lake Tekapo / 3rd Jan : We were lucky to be able to experience something as local as a farmer’s market at Lyttelton. There were times when I wished I was a local just to be a part of their spirited community. Meeting the residents, chatting with them, hearing their stories and, watching them go about their business trumps any commercial tourist attraction. It felt real and authentic. And sketching seemed like a great way to start conversations and make friends out of strangers!

Walking through the market felt like gatecrashing a private party. ‘How’s your mother doing?’, “You looked great in that bikini the other day”, “Were you out of town?”, “Happy New Year!” were some of the snippets of conversation I heard been exchanged between the bread, mince pie, cheese, sausage, herbs, fruit and vegetable stall owners and their customers.

A band played slow music beside a cafe and the harbour across the street looked beautifully blue. Armed with a gigantic ( about 20cm in diameter) Focaccia bread that took us 5 days to finish, 100 gm each of herb and garlic cheese and my treasured olives, we forged ahead towards our destination.

The first sight of Lake Tekapo had us swooning over its terrific blueness. It was bluer than the bluest blue I had seen. Up at St. John’s Observatory, the air was so clean and transparent that the farthest mountains in the backdrop became visible, forming a soft undulating dark green outline in contrast to the stark and edgy blue foreground. For urban dwellers heavy-handed with photoshop and Instagram filters, this sight would be a revelation.

4th January 2015: Mount Cook bound – The owner of Glacier Rock B&B – our fantastic lodging (the view from the patio alone makes it worth the stay) in Lake Tekapo said to us at breakfast, ” I have a feeling that you’ll have a clear view of Mt. Cook today“. Apparently, it isn’t uncommon for the weather to turn without warning and for us that could mean losing our only chance to view the highest peak of New Zealand. Already the radio was abuzz with the news of the three missing mountaineers attempting to scale Mt Cook after the weather deteriorated. I hoped Mrs. MacLaren was right.

Lake Tekapo - Mount Cook - Omarama / 4th Jan : Peak of the day was dipping my feet in glacial water at the end of Hooker Valley Walk. And the bland under seasoned pea soup I had at Shawtys in Twizel has to be the slump of the day. Yes, it was worse than the 120$ speeding ticket.

Lake Tekapo – Mount Cook – Omarama / 4th Jan : Peak of the day was dipping my feet in glacial water at the end of Hooker Valley Walk. And the bland under seasoned pea soup at Shawtys in Twizel has to be the slump of the day. Yes, it was worse than the 120$ speeding ticket.

After a short stopover at Lake Pukaki, the plan was to drive non stop to Hermitage Hotel, take in the famed view of the mountain from there, then start on the 4hours tiring yet spectacular Hookers Valley Walk that ended at the Hooker glacial lake. But the closer we got to the mountain, more compelled were we to make random roadside stops just to adjust our senses to the beauty unfolding. Unsullied nature at such a grand scale was a lot to take in. It was humbling to stand on that listless road snaking feverishly though a sweeping landscape of massive forbidding mountains surrounding us, rising from the ground like mighty waves.

The day ended at Omarama – the starting point of our ‘gold heritage trail’.

5th January 2015 : A long winded route to Dunedin – There is of course a straightforward and quicker route to Dunedin which we did not take. Relaxing is something we forget to do on holidays. Instead we carved out a day long plan to drive through the preserved goldrush towns of Cromwell, Clyde, Alexandra, St. Bathans, Naseby, Ranfurly, Middlemarch and finally to Dunedin, that claim their origins to the discovery of gold in 1861.

Otago's Gold Heritage Trail/ 5th Jan :  I got myself four souvenirs from this trail - a 'Lavender, Lime and Spice' soap bar from Cromwell, a maori dolphin tail locket made out of bone from Clyde, a tacky fridge magnet from Alexandra, a sticker for my diary from St. Bathans. I cannot bring myself to use the soap. For now it perfumes my study table.

Otago’s Gold Heritage Trail/ 5th Jan : I got myself four souvenirs from this trail and none of them was gold. I picked a ‘Lavender, Lime and Spice’ soap bar from Cromwell, a maori dolphin tail locket made out of bone from Clyde, a tacky fridge magnet from Alexandra and a sticker for my diary from St. Bathans. I cannot bring myself to use the soap. For now it perfumes my study table.

The historic precincts in each of these towns being pedestrian, it’s easy to slip back in time just by walking past the retro architecture. Art galleries, restaurants and cafes are housed in some of these establishments. Some act as museums, some sell handcrafted soaps. But together they exude a cute picture postcard beauty and nostalgic charm that made the detour every bit worthwhile.

6th January 2015 : Touring Dunedin – Except Omarama, where our lodging didn’t turn out as expected, I did a pretty good job in finding unique accommodations on this tour, the creme de la creme being Lisburn House in Dunedin – a stunning 19th century Victorian property turned into B&B that will feed your fantasy of living as a member of 19th century English nobility.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the Otago Settlers Museum. Not because it was hot outside and I needed the shelter, but because it was of the best curated museums I had visited – one of those educational establishments that believes in telling a compelling story through its exhibits, encouraging its viewers to join the dots instead of spoon feeding them.

Dunedin / 6th Jan: We woke up in a Victorian dream home, toured a chocolate factory and climbed the world's steepest street, all in one day. Pretty productive, I'd say!

Dunedin / 6th Jan: We woke up in a Victorian dream home, toured a chocolate factory and climbed the world’s steepest street, all in one day. Pretty productive, I’d say!

After romping about the city some more, we drove 70 Km to see an unique geological sight that had intrigued us ever since we saw its pictures. Moeraki Boulders seemed like gigantic concrete cannonballs randomly lying on the beach, some in clusters, some solitary. There were deep cracks all over their surface, like some sort of design. Some boulders were intact, whole – people climbed over them and took pictures, while others lay cracked open like an egg shell, with fragments scattered all over the sand.

At sunset, the tip of the boulders became golden tinged. The waves crashed against their smooth bodies, trying to pull them in, but failing and sliding off the sand around them instead. It was hard to make sense of their existence, but that was a good thing because it’s better to be curious than blasè. Isn’t it why we travel?