Every time I visit a new city, my local friends or my guides invariably take me to see its main ‘sights’. The impressive public architecture, the big squares and boulevards, the historic buildings and museums. While I’m thankful for the steep learning curve with valuable contexts and a sense of bearing, I soon begin to hanker after something else. I’m curious about the locals and the unfolding of their daily lives, their streets and their homes, their fears and fascinations, dreams and aspirations. Before long, adventure beckons, and I let my own observations slake my curiosity. I slip away to the local neighbourhood, alone, or with a like-minded friend who enjoys savouring the unique aspects of life sure to be found in the nooks and crannies of our little blue planet.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on our planet, my friend and I strolled past a row of painted wooden huts. It was 8°C and sunny in the height of summer, and people went about their business walking or driving. Yet, what hung and rested in front of the homes—skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, heavy winter boots and dog harnesses gave us a completely different picture. Soon, the town would be thickly blanketed in snow, the roads would disappear, and the locals would experience the freedom of flying in all directions across the boundless landscape, over the lakes and rivers, on skies, snowmobiles and dogsleds. The frontispieces of their homes were crafted with found objects such as driftwood and reindeer horns. As a couple of women left their home, they hefted rifles on to their trucks, smiling as they explained they were school teachers, taking the kids for a walk in the nearby hill. It is mandatory here for each adult to have a gun when leaving the perimeter of the small town, in case of a polar bear attack. These were indeed fascinating insights into a dramatically different lifestyle in the high Arctic.
In many places on the water with warm climates, such as Cartagena (Colombia); Paraty (Brazil); and Sao Tome and Principe, the gardens and driveways are crammed with boats, their owners hankering after the sea. The presence of hammocks in the porches shows just how popular they are as day and night beds for they catch the breeze, and gently rock the occupants into a delicious slumber.
Just an hour west of London, the small homes in villages of the Cotswolds are infused in charm, with pear-espaliers, hibiscus and rambling rose clambering all over the homes. In their gardens, I’ve come across painted ceramic gnomes, that are popular ornaments and deemed to be the secret helpers who tend the gardens. It is believed that these figurines originated in Germany as gartenzwerge, or garden dwarfs in the eighteenth century. In Ireland too, leprechauns, the trickster fairies, are a nod to a mythical legacy that intertwines the real with the phantasmagorical.
Etched, painted and hung on the fronts of homes and in the windows, I’ve noticed the hand of Fatima, the crescent moon and a star, the mezuzah, the candles of Hanukah, the star of David, the cross, Christmas wreaths, the Madonna and baby Jesus, the Faravahar and urns of fire, Lakshmi, Ganesh or Hanuman, Buddha and the lotus and so many other familiar symbols affiliated with religion and folklore. People display them with pride, feeling their home would not be complete without a shrine to the god that has been their benefactor, or the tribe that has supported them and given them a sense of belonging.
In Thailand, one immediately notices the miniature spirit houses in front of homes—even those on the rivers—where people welcome the souls of their departed ancestors with flowers, food and incense.
Walking along the countryside in Bhutan, the white-washed walls of houses are enlivened by symbolic illustrations. There are omnipresent images of lotus, deer, conch shells, clouds and tigers. And phalluses. Many of them. Some tied with sacred threads, others with dragons on them. While visitors might be taken aback when they see them for the first time, and can’t help giggling, it shows us something of the Bhutanese mindset. They’re in keeping with a 500-year-old tradition whence the poplar “Divine Madman”, Lama Drukpa Kunley attempted to teach Buddhism to the common man in his own idiosyncratic, unselfconscious style, with relatable imagery. While the phalluses ward of the evil eye and evoke fertility, they also show that these very traditional, almost straight-and-narrow mountain dwellers also honour originality and light-heartedness.
People announce their patriotism by propping their country’s flags outside their homes, and this trend is particularly popular in the USA. After 911, the show of solidarity fluttered on the windows and porches everywhere. In many other places, national and team-flags reveal allegiance, especially during major sporting tournaments.
You can tell superstitions are alive when you see emblems that avert the evil eye, such as devil’s faces with the tongue sticking out, or strings of limes and chillies, as seen in many parts of India. In Goa, ceramic cockerels on rooftops let you know that the home-dwellers are vigilant. Terracotta saluting soldiers welcome you in, as do many traditional Goan porches, known as balcaōes, with permanent twin benches where a visitor can take a seat in the shade and rest their weary legs till someone shows up.
In Myanmar, compassionate homeowners keep terracotta pots filled with water outside their doors for thirsty travellers who can help themselves with a ladle.
Birdhouses, birdbaths, dovecotes, cat flaps and dog-houses reflect a love and fascination for animals. In Nagaland, carving wood is a traditional skill, and the focal points of homes tend to have a constellation of creatures such as tigers, elephants, snakes, monkeys and hornbills. The horns of mithun, the semi-wild cattle, are most prevalent at entrances, as they symbolise wealth, prosperity and fertility.
In many parts of Barbados, Granada, Saint Lucia, Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean, the gateposts are studded with creatures such as eagles, cranes, tortoises and lions, which are exceedingly popular. Perhaps lions watching over the gates gives the residents a feeling of security. These houses, more than anywhere, are painted in bold and joyous colours, reflecting the happiness people derive from splashes of vibrant hues.
I delight in spotting a beautiful piece of art on a veranda, or a sculpture, a photograph or a delightful element of design such as the use of seashells for translucent windows. Music wafting out of a home, or the sound of singing can be enchanting. In Luang Prabang, Laos, we once walked a street where the television sets faced outwards and the doors were left open to catch the breeze, and we, along with a handful of local boys, caught an entire football match just by loitering.
In Costa Rica, the homes are covered in lush foliage, with pretty metal grills that extend one’s living space to the farthest extent of the property. Here, the hallmark of considered living—compost barrels and a series of litter bins marked paper, metal and plastic- have pride of place.
Many endearing, small villages of Maramures, Romania, have been forgotten by time, and life carries on as it did centuries ago. People craft their own wooden homes, grow their own food and scythe the grass to see their livestock through winter. Walking about one morning, I noticed something curious. Some of the houses had pots and pans hanging from posts. Later, when asked, I found out that these were announcements that there was a daughter of marriageable age in the house.
In Jaisalmer, India, inside the ancient fort as well as out in the villages, large scale wedding cards painted at the entrances of homes announce nuptials with the names of the couples and family members in bold, and they invite the reader to attend. Whoever expected, just by keeping an eye out as we strolled the streets, we’d be rewarded by an invitation to the grandest of parties!
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