Missing the Monuments
In my rebellion, I became the traveler who wandered the streets of a city without a map.
I grew up the daughter of a museum director.
As a child, I remember wandering from room to room of an exhibit at a museum, only to get to the end to find my mother halfway through the first room taking notes on the lighting and display boxes.
She called me over while happily examining a 6th century bronze statue of “Ardhanarishvara”. Did I know that Ardhanarishvara was a composite of both the Hindu God Shiva, and his consort, Parvati, found most commonly in Shiva temples from the Gupta period? And did I know that Chandra Gupta who ruled one of the most powerful empires that stretched all the way across India had two wives? Or that chess originated in the Gupta courts?
Family vacations were planned around monuments and museums. We’d start out early to make sure we wouldn’t miss anything, and while my father would always find some excuse to head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap, my sisters and I would head out with my mother, sleepy from lunch to visit another museum, another monument.
As an adult, I rebelled, and followed a “1-M” Rule; I’d see one museum or one monument on every trip. When I backpacked through Spain at 19, my mother asked me excitedly over the phone to tell her about the Cathedral of Córdoba. I hadn’t gone, I told her, but I did have excellent stories of cobblestone adventures.
In my rebellion, I became the traveler who wandered the streets of a city without a map, until my legs were too tired to walk. Then I’d stop for a coffee and spend the rest of the afternoon in a cafe or on a bench in a park, watching people or talking to anyone who would stop to chat.
I explored markets. Fabric markets, fish markets, flower markets, meat markets, vegetable markets, flea markets, bead markets. I loved them all. It thrilled me to walk around looking at the different kinds of produce, to run my hands over stacks of handwoven fabric wondering which one I’d take home with me, and to smell the smells that were so distinctive but still so similar.
I loved discovering the secrets of a city. The empty square where kids flew kites, the tea -stall in front of which old men played chess, quiet narrow streets boasting the facades of once-grand, now-forgotten buildings, the man on the sidewalk who made toys out of tin. All of it was exciting to me.
Last year, I left a legal career behind to start Project Bly, a website built on the philosophy that to really know a city, you must wander its streets.
Bly brings you tree-lined residential streets in La Paz, Bolivia off the tourist track, but home to the city’s best and most political street art.
It brings alive the busy narrow streets of bustling Kejetia market in Kumasi, Ghana, packed with batik fabric in more patterns than you can count.
And introduces you to an old tea-house tucked away on a nondescript street in Bukhara, frequented only by “bobos”— “pensioners” who come to play cards, and who will tell you stories about Stalin’s Uzbekistan if you join them for a game.
Project Bly even brings you an antique brass Shiva discovered in the bazaars of South Bombay, perhaps not as old as the ones you might find in a museum, but old enough. And who is this mustachioed Hindu God, you might want to know?
Well, Project Bly will tell you that he’s Shiva, “the most powerful Hindu deity, a god of profound contradiction: destroyer, benefactor, ascetic, family man, celibate, and lover,whose erotic expertise was such that after hearing Shiva in bed with his consort, Parvati, the master’s doorkeeper was “moved to a sacred utterance,” which would eventually be recorded and given to mankind in the form of the Kama Sutra. After Brahma creates it, and Vishnu preserves it, Shiva destroys the world so that it may be created again.”*
What is an object if it isn’t the keeper of history and stories?
And as I grow older, my rebellious phase behind me, I realize that I am after all, my mother’s daughter.
*Story of Shiva written by Corianne Brosnahan, Chief Scribe at Project Bly.