of streets in the place you're visiting. Lots of people visit New York City and never really get beyond Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, places that give a very one-dimensional picture of what New York City is really like. That's why, when I'm traveling, I prefer to spend a lot of time getting from Point A to Point B, preferably on foot. And I like to stop and take pictures while I'm doing it.
I've accumulated quite the collection of street scenes in this way, and I love them because more than any other pictures I have -- more than the postcard shots of great monuments or recognizable icons -- they really capture the spirit of the place. The streets of the Old Town in Cartagena, Colombia, are lined with colonial architecture, each building possessing its own carved wooden balcon
, or balcony. These balcones
are romantic and sociable, the essence of Cartagena's spirit for me.
You can just imagine 19th century Colombians taking to the balcony to catch up on the latest gossip, watching the action in the street below, or waving to a friend in a carriage passing by. The streets of Popayan, on the other hand, make up for with blinding whiteness what they lack in balconies, prompting Colombians to call this town the "White City."
Even streetscapes that aren't conventionally beautiful can surprise you with what's just around the corner. The busy boulevard of 125th street in Harlem, near where we live, is not a particularly appealing scene.
Low-end clothing shops and discount retailers compete with fast food chains, hustlers, and street vendors hawking cheap sunglasses and watches. The streets are filled with trash. But somebody decided to paint a mural on the side of the H&M building testifying to Harlem's history as the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and Jazz, and reminding this bleak stretch of street what it once was and might one day be again. You see it and remember that there's more to this place than what it's become, or what it appears to be on its surface. Maybe that's the whole point of such public art projects. If any city should have an opinion about the issue, it's Medellin, Colombia, which is bursting at the scenes with public art, from the Rubinesque "gorditos" of Fernando Botero to murals painted by obvious acolytes of Diego Rivera.
But the cleverest of them all definitely has to be this mural of a sea of shanties, painted on the side of what seems to be just another shanty. It seems to be making a point about urban expansion, but the greatest thing about it is that it's a trompe de l'oeil of what surrounds it. Looking at it, it so perfectly blends into the scene that you're passing on the light rail it abuts that you almost don't realize it's a mural. It captures the spirit of its place by mimicking that place ironically, almost mockingly.
Of course, there are some places you don't visit for the streetscapes or the public art. Santa Marta, Colombia definitely falls into this category: its tourist strip, with high-rise industrial-looking condos filling every available space, illustrates the worst excesses of unregulated urban development. But nobody goes to Santa Marta for the city.
You go for the natural beauty just a stone's throw away from it, and for the beach. And when you see this photograph of two fishermen paddling past the sunset in their canoe, you understand what defines Santa Marta beyond its touristy side. The same can be said of Florida beach scenes. Much of St Pete Beach or Ft Myers Beach consists of condos, hotels, cheesy fabricated beachside "villages," amusement parks, and McMansions.
But when you get to the beach, all of that disappears. You feel calm, peaceful, soothed. That's the spirit of Florida's beaches -- the one that this photograph of me by my husband perfectly captures.
And now for my favorite of the group: this long-distance portrait of a blacksmith at work in Colonial Williamsburg. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum where actors and artisans in period costume behave like colonial Virginians. This blacksmith plied her trade while her fellow blacksmiths took audience questions. The photograph captures her obliviousness to the crowd, her intense focus, her quietness in what was otherwise a noisy scene.
I love everything about this photograph -- the play of shadows and light, the way the color of her hair matches the ruddy red of her apron, the strange alienation that distance produces. But most of all, I love how it feels, when looking at it, that we're privy to a quiet, private moment. We're voyeurs, in a sense. This photograph places the viewer in a position that exactly replicates the position we're meant
to assume in Colonial Williamsburg, where we're encouraged to "spy" on our ancestors in order to encounter history in a unique way. In that way, it perfectly captures the spirit of this place.
I've always heard it said that if you really want to get to know a place when traveling, you have to walk its streets. I believe that's true, with the caveat that you have to walk all different