27 April 2012

Aim True...

Have you ever been to a mosque?  Me neither.  (Unless you have, in which case, congratulations.)  But, I have watched a lot of movies.  No, this post isn't about my favorite foreign film, but rather about something I've noticed about the architecture of the mosques being used as sets in a couple of these movies.

I'd often wondered, as a fleeting peripheral thought, what the half-dome cutout was that sat in one of the walls of the mosque.  In my ignorant youth (wink) I'd assumed it to be a mere decorative element, but as I explored the architecture of more and more of these religious buildings, I began to notice a trend.  Each mosque seemed to have one...and only one.  And, these curious cutouts were not limited to mosques found in Muslim countries, oh no.  They can be found in mosques all over our stunning planet.  So?  What are they for?

As it turns out, though they are typically gloriously decorated and ornately beautiful, they serve a pretty banal purpose.  They're a directional tool.  Unless you have an innate sense of direction and are capable of pointing the way to Mecca without reading star charts or whipping out your compass, you'll need a Mihrab (the snazzy little cut-out) to help you out! 

Originally, during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan, the Caliph had a sign put up inside the mosque at Medina denoting the direction in which Mecca lay.  He did this so visitors would know which way to orient themselves during their prayers.  The sign worked just fine for a while, but then, when the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) was renovated in the early 700's, the governor of Medina decided that a half-round, domed cutout was to be put in the "qibla wall" (the wall facing Mecca).  After a short while the signs were replaced in nearly every mosque as the Mihrab became the more universally understood method of showing the way to Mecca: most likely because it transcended language and literacy barriers.

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Stunning right?  I think it's worth noting that some historians believe that the decision to make the Mihrab look like doorways was made intentionally.  If true, its purpose then becomes to represent a literal and figurative "doorway" to Mecca.

Nowadays, Mihrab vary in size and embellishment, but their purpose is the same.  No matter who you are, what your language proficiency may be, or whether or not you're from the area, you'll be able to find your way to Mecca.

Though I am not Muslim, I hope someday I'll be able to visit and pray in a building like this, if only to gain a greater understanding of the people around me.  Because...it wouldn't hurt for us all to have a little more understanding.


17 January 2012

The House of the Rising Sun

Japan is a neat place.  There are few countries in the world where fierce ancient traditions can coexist harmoniously with technology that's moving faster than the text message of a 15 year-old girl.  Seriously.  Tradition is one of the reasons I find myself lovesessed (if you will) with the Land of the Rising Sun.  I feel like there are too many places that are fully ready to abandon ship on their customs the moment "Westernization" gives them a foxy wink.  Therein lies the beauty of Japan.

Despite it's best attempts to swallow the practices of an ancient culture and spit out SUV's and apple pie, Westernization has lost.  Perhaps lost is too concrete a word.  Rather, the Japanese took the things that benefited them most and merged them with what was already working.  One of the best places to see evidence of this is in the Japanese home.

The first thing you'd notice upon being invited to a typical Japanese house is the presence of what's referred to as genkan.  Genkan are basically a place for you to remove your shoes and put on a pair of house slippers before you enter the main home.  The primary purpose is to prevent muddy or otherwise dirty shoes from tracking little goodies all over the place, but many believe that there's a psychological purpose as well.  When you walk into the home, remove your shoes and then step up into the space, you become a little bit aware of the fact that you are a guest in someones private home.  Ideally your behavior would reflect this new-found insight.  Ideally.

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Genkan are almost always made of an easily cleaned surface like tile or linoleum but sometimes, when the house is further away from the mega cities, the Genkan will have a concrete floor.  This makes it easier to sweep any dried debris right out the door and into the yard.  Interestingly, many schools and even some older businesses have genkan, but they usually have cubbyholes or lockers to store the shoes that would otherwise pile up.

Oh, and don't worry if you find yourself invited to dinner but you're without your own set of house slippers.  Most homeowners will have slippers at the ready for guests.  However, if you have big ol' feet (or feet that are particularly...um...pungent) you may want to hurry out and buy a pair your own.  Just make sure the socks you're wearing come from the same matched set.

Or, if you insist on wearing mismatched socks, at least make sure they're artfully mismatched.


25 August 2011

My one Trullo love!

One day I am going to travel to Italy.  I am.  I'll see the sights, sample the gelato, and wink shamelessly at the men.  Yet, there is one thing I want to see even more than the linen-clad gentlemen of Rome.  In the scenic region of Apulia (Puglia), if you explore thoroughly enough, you'll spy what look like giant stone candle snuffers sitting squatly in the middle of fields of swaying grass.  However, these structures are not the dousing tool of some fantastical giant, but rather the traditional Apulian home for olden-days agricultural laborers or landowners.  And the bit you might have mistaken for a candle snuffer is in fact the roof of these wonderful buildings.  They are called Trullo, and I do believe I am in love.

The golden age of the Trullo was during the 1800's, but evidence of their existence goes back as far as the 1600's when the need for a quickly-dismantled home was high.  Rumor has it that taxation on homeowners was pretty heavy during this time, so builders had to come up with a masonry-free method of construction so they could literally "bring down the house" when tax inspectors were poking around.  The technique came to be known as dry stone construction and it proved more than effective in helping farmers avoid those pesky payments for almost 200 years.  It also made for one watertight and wind-tight house.  You see, the roof itself is constructed in two layers that are so well placed, that one piece can be removed for replacement without disturbing any of the others.  Incredible right?

Luckily for us, the skill for assembling these babies remained popular enough that even people who weren't avoiding the tax man chose to live in them.  That's why so many of them have stood the test of time, technology, and taxes and still exist for the enjoyment of the historically obsessed.  Like myself.

image property of http://www.trullialfresco.it
image property of http://www.trullialfresco.it
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Aren't they a little pinch of fairy tale mixed with a cup of amazing?  Luckily, the Italian government recognized the historical significance of these buildings early on.  Quite a few have been fully restored for tourists to visit and gawk over.  But, if that's not enough to satisfy the infatuation you will develop, you can buy one.  Yes, I said buy one.  Unfortunately you'll probably have to get one that looks a little more like the one in the top image, but with a little elbow grease and the mile-long list of restrictions for Trullo renovations you'll get from the Italian government, you'll have a home looking like the one in the bottom image in no time!

So, here's another thing I've added to my "In My Wildest Dreams Bucket List": own a Trullo in Apulia, Italy.  Like I said, "in my wildest...", but still worth considering in my impracticable opinion.  After all, I'd get to live in a little piece of history, and who doesn't want a home with stories to tell?


10 May 2011

"She was a Gypsy woman..."

When I was almost three, my family moved into a home my grandfather had built near the Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch redwood parks in California.  We had few neighbors (mainly the overgrown trees of an abandoned Christmas tree farm and a small, but loud herd of sheep), so I was free to explore and imagine until my mind and heart were full.

Across the road from our house sat a very small, and hardly visible home of a man named Rex.  I say "hardly visible" because the front of his house was being assaulted by a blackberry bush the size of Rhode Island, and a redwood jungle was advancing quickly from the rear.  It was this same redwood forest that I spent many nights imagining Gypsies prowling through.

I first learned of Gypsies (Romani) from my fey-touched Aunt Marilyn.  She told me that the old women of Gypsy families would sneak out of the woods in the night then kidnap ill-behaved children and turn them into slaves...or soup.  Unlike a "normal" child who would be afraid of such an experience, I thought the whole thing would be a rather grand adventure.  Now, I know Gypsies are not cannibalistic, nor would they kidnap a little misbehaving miscreant (because who would subject themselves to that kind of torture?), but the allure of Gypsy culture has never left me.  There is just something so magical and free about they way they live, and nothing is more magical to me than the wagons they called home.

The Vardo, or Romani Wagon, is a horse-drawn caravan that was widely used by the Romani people in Great Britain and Europe until the last 20 years or so.  (Unfortunately most Romani people live in metal caravans now, but there are still some who hold to the old traditions.)  Anyway, the Romani people are nomads who traditionally moved from place to place as circus performers or cheap labor workers or goods traders, and because of this, they needed some sort of compact, efficient form of living that was sturdy enough to resist the elements.  A wagon seemed the logical choice because it can be drawn by a horse and can hold everything necessary for sustaining life.

The well-organized wagon interiors have typically got a bed with drawers underneath, which is positioned against the wall opposite the door (which is at the back), and one or two windows.  Then, near the rear of the wagon is the kitchen, with a chimney pipe exiting through the roof and storage cabinets for food and dinnerware.  Cooking pots and utensils are usually hung along the wall in order to keep as much open floor space as possible and a bench of some kind is nestled across from the stove.  Finally, the whole thing, inside and out, is ornately carved and decorated in an effort to exhibit the woodworking skill of the Romani craftsmen.

The usual patterns used in ornamentation were Romani symbols and images that held significance to the culture.  Horses were a popular motif, due to their importance in pulling the wagons, but gryphons, lions, birds, flowers, and vines were common as well.  Oftentimes these complex designs were gold leafed in order to make them more obvious and beautiful.

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As you probably noticed, there are a few different styles of wagon, but the interiors are similar regardless of the roof design.  They've all got a stove, and bed, and place to sit, but more importantly, they are filled to the brim with all the magic and charm that can be found in the world.

Someday I will own a Romani Wagon, I just know it.  After all, what better place is there to escape the breakneck pace of the world and enjoy a nice bowl of. . . soup?


04 May 2011

No dirt in my Yurt!

I have never been to Mongolia and I would probably never have given the country a second thought, but then I saw the Focus Features film, "Babies".  One of the films four stars is a firecracker of a little boy named Bayar and he lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.  He is absolutely one of the cutest creatures on the planet but unfortunately he's not the reason I've suddenly become enchanted by his homeland.  Rather, I'm fascinated by his house: a Yurt (or "Ger" if you're Mongolian).

Bayar's parents are Mongolian nomads who tend a large goat herd and, out of necessity, they live in a portable home.  If you know anything about herding animals, then you know that they aren't kept in one place for very long.  The herders have got to follow them around, and what better way for them to shelter themselves than with a Yurt?

Yurt's are massively cool, circular buildings that are completely collapsible.  The frame is typically made of latticed wood which is wrapped in waterproof canvas or wool felt.  This construction method makes it easy to disassemble and transport as needed.  Then there are the roof poles, which are usually draped in a waterproof material then attached to the wooden crown at the peak of the roof.  In larger Yurts, the crown is supported from below by a column of some sort.  The whole bundle of wood and fabric is then skillfully (and astonishingly) strung together using only ropes or ribbons.  If that's not a feat of design engineering and talent, then I don't know what is.

Anyway, the use of Yurts started in about the 12th or 13th century in Mongolia and entire villages of people would live in them, much like Native Americans (First Nation) living in Tepees.  The interior of some Yurts may even reflect a more spiritually inspired layout with importance being given to the cardinal directions (the door always facing South and the North-Eastern area of the Yurt being designated for the woman of the house).  However, many modern herders orient the door toward the rising sun so that they might use the Yurt as a sundial.  Ingenious, I know.

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Not surprisingly, Yurts can be found all around the world: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, (all the other stans), etc.  There are even people in the Americas who recognize the utility and convenience of such a mode of living, though the materials used for construction tend to be more high-tech than those found abroad.  Either way, if fate blesses you with the chance to sleep in one of these bad boys, take it.  I know I hope to someday.

Keep exploring!


08 April 2011

Sweat it out!

I love Native Americans (or First Nations if you hail from the Northern lands of Canada).  I love their culture, their design, their historic clothing, their beautiful men..., their everything!  When I was younger I loved exploring the Native American exhibit at the museum that was blessedly situated near my house, and my love for them has only grown since then.  There has been, however, one facet of their design world that, when I was a child, I never quite understood: the Sweat Lodge.

The Native American Sweat Lodge functions a lot like a really big sauna.  It's typically a hut-like building (or hole in the ground covered in planks) that has a pit in the middle where the really hot rocks are placed.  The Lodges are primarily used for purification ceremonies which differ from tribe to tribe (obviously).  Sometimes the entire event is silent, or a tribal leader tells stories, or the whole group participates in songs and chants.  Whatever it is, consider yourself lucky if you're ever invited to attend.  Should you be asked to go, remember to ask about their expectations for you and whatever etiquette rules they may have.  You don't want to show up in a pretty floral bikini all slathered up in baby oil...especially if you're a guy.

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Oh, and some advice if you do go, don't wear anything metal because it can get super hot and burn you.  Also, you're gonna want to take out your contacts and be really aware of your water intake so you don't become dehydrated.  And, not to cause worry, but if you're feeling lightheaded or dizzy, that's probably a good sign that you'll need fresh air asap.  Regardless, the once-in-a-lifetime visit to a sweat lodge ceremony would be killer experience, I'm sure of it!

Now, although I've never had the privilege to participate in a purification ceremony, I have added a sweat lodge visit to my "Hopefully-in-My-Life" bucket list.  I'm crossing more than just my fingers for this one!

So, now you all have to go out and visit Pow-Wow's and museums and Native American exhibits and visitors centers on reservations!  You'll be surprised what you'll learn about a people who have been around far longer than we have.  After all, they're our nearest neighbors we should get to know them.


16 March 2011

Washiki What?!

Have you ever heard of a squat toilet?  No?  Well, if you've ever traveled around the Middle East, Asia or Japan you may have encountered one of these curious restroom wonders.  Though it can be distressing to suddenly discover a squat toilet to be your only option, there really is nothing to be afraid of.

A squat toilet (alaturka, kakkoos, washiki, etc.) is a toilet used by squatting rather than sitting.  Instead of a raised bowl, the user must carefully squat over what is essentially a porcelain (or concrete or stainless steel or dirt) hole-in-the-ground to do their business.  Scared?  You shouldn't be.  They're surprisingly easy to use and are actually pretty practical.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that to properly use one, you face the wall (or flushing mechanism) and scoot as far forward as you comfortably can.  For first timers and those with slight mobility issues, it is often recommended you grab hold of the plumbing at the front to prevent yourself from "falling in".

Though some would say the initial awkwardness of using a squat toilet well outweighs the practicality, I don't agree.  Not only are they easier to keep clean than a bowl toilet, they are easier to repair and much more sanitary (as you're not sitting on a shared surface).  There are other health benefits to squatting as well, but I'm not about to go there.

Oh, and don't underestimate the water pressure of these babies.  They'll do their job just fine and do it without using as much water as a bowl toilet.  How's that for practicality?

Image property of http://www.mrsranneypoole.com/japan-osaki

Anyway, the idea for the squat toilet is one that most likely evolved from a unique drainage system that was created in Nara, Japan sometime between 710 and 784 A.D.  Essentially, a long 4 to 6 inch wide (10 to 15 cm) drainage ditch was dug through the town which was thin enough for people to squat over with one foot on either side to easily take care of things.  Lucky for you, the technology developed over time into something much more private and sanitary.  So next time you see one of these "urinals-in-the-floor" put on your "I've got this" face and own it!  If nothing else you'll have an interesting conversation starter for the rest of your life.

Remember, just because it's different doesn't mean it's scary.  Breathe, relax and you'll be just fine.