Year in Review: 2011 | Here, there, everywhere… and even from Mars

Before jumping into 2012 with both feet, I thought I’d do my annual Year in Review post. This time, thought, I am doing things a little differently and instead of making a list of all of my favorite posts, like I did last year, I have picked just one post from each month of 2011. Some of the posts I chose are more informative, while others are more fun to look at than to read (and vice versa), but I enjoyed browsing through all of them and hope you will like the trip down memory lane too. Good times!

In the spirit of reflection that unavoidably comes with a retrospective post like this, I have to admit that looking through my archives has made me realize the continuous fortune I’ve had in the past year of being surrounded, reunited, encountered with, hosted, welcomed and accompanied by wonderful, fun, lovely, inspiring and gracious people, some of whom are mentioned in the posts below. Without them none of my travels would not be what they are, if they were to be at all. So this review is also a big THANK YOU to all of them, for making 2011 a great year for me.

So, here goes. My highlights of 2011, month by month, were:

January 2011:

On the threshold, where nothing is permanent | Mahabalipuram and Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
My whole trip to India was nothing short of amazing for many reasons, one of which was that it coincided with the Pongal harvest festival, which meant there were beautiful, colorful hand-drawn decorations on the ground to be seen everywhere.

February 2011:

Blue Valentine | Kuwait

March 2011:

Oh so pedestrian | Sofia, Bulgaria
Not really much of a choice here, since I only posted once in March, but actually one of the texts that was the most fun to write this year.

April 2011:

Nobody puts Baby in a corner | Sofia, Bulgaria
A clear example of my belief that anything is worth writing (ok, blogging) about.

May 2011:

Eat Pray Love | Sofia, Bulgaria
Doing some of my favorite things with my favorite twins.

June 2011:

In the Palace | Balchik, Bulgaria
Not just because I was at the seaside, nor just because I was at a pretty fun and exciting film festival, but also because I was with one of my favorite friends at the most beautiful place on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

July 2011:

La belleza de las letr¡ah!s | Madrid, Spain
I have been pining to go back to Madrid and this year, ever since I saw the Letras neighbourhood, whose streets are beautifully engraved with literature several years ago. Cute guys lying down on the ground for my photo-taking pleasure were not part of the plan, but are always welcome.

August 2011:

Bits and pieces, in pairs | Barcelona, Spain
Probably the happiest, most carefree trip of the year. Luckily for me, though that was neither the first nor the last time I went to enchanting Barcelona and got to hang out with my friend Slavka.

September 2011:

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree | Moscow, Russia
I didn’t get to go to Moscow myself, but the photo comes from my beloved jet-setter dad, with a short text from me, whose writing led to the discovery of the idea of Kilometer Zero markings, which I had been unaware of until now, despite previous sightings.

October 2011:

Off-season girls | Bodrum, Turkey and elsewhere
My trip to Bodrum was a real joy, not just because of the treat of swimming in the Adriatic in the beginning of October, but mostly for the chance it gave me to meet and spend time with a group of wonderful, amazing and inspiring women, some of which contributed to this post, and all of whom left a lasting trace in my heart.

November 2011:

Finding my feet | Montpellier, France
A bit of a nostalgic post, but a real pleasure to write.

December 2011:

Martian, like the planet | Lake Salagou, Languedoc Roussillon, France
…and, as promised, finishing off the year with a post from another planet!

Set in stone | Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India

There I was again, walking around a landmark of global importance with my eyes firmly fixed on the ground instead of looking up at the sights around me. This guy, on the other hand, knew how to act like a proper self-respecting tourist and put me to shame.

In this case, the landmarks I should have been looking at were the elaborate rock-carved monuments of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Still, in between all the downward gazing, I managed to have a quick look at the Five Rathas, dating to the 7th century. Each of them is a monolith shrine sculpted in a different style, carved whole from a single piece of pink granite rock in situ. Historians say the area served as a school for young sculptors who had to learn and practice different architectural styles. Today, there are still dozens of workshops around the site, which sell hand-carved granite sculptures.

Another structure of the site was the Shore Temple, a five-story structural (unlike the rock-cut rathas) Hindu temple dating to the beginning of the 8th century, which stands right on the Bay of Bengal.

One thing that took me by surprise was the unexpected sense of serenity that dawned on me when I entered the temple. Away from the scorching sun and the heat (which I was tempted to describe as oppressive before I remembered that at the same time temperatures in Sofia reached -15 °C), the loud, gawking and pushy tourists crowds, I felt the cool granite beneath my bare feet and the light breeze around me, and a certain tranquility set it.

Speaking of serenity, I owe the chance to see Mahabalipuram, as well as my whole stay in India, to my wonderful friends and the most gracious of hosts Lika and David. They handled my last-minute and highly disorganized visit with enviable composure, along the way effortlessly dealing with my culture shocks, freak-outs from insane traffic, endless questions, frustrated haggling over pashmina prices, lack of proper footwear, danger of serious sunburn and allergy-inducing mosquito bites, sore throat bouts and spicy food challenges. All with four-month-old baby Elena in tow.

On the threshold, where nothing is permanent | Mahabalipuram and Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Here is one place I didn’t have to look hard for beautiful grounds. Every entrance to every home – from the marbled floor at the front doors of apartments in guarded buildings to the pavements and pathways at the entryways of huts on the street, was decorated with ephemeral powder drawings, called kolams.

I was lucky to be in Chennai during Pongal – an important harvest festival celebrated by Tamils, so the kolams, I was told, were more colorful and intricate than usual.

Popular in South India, the kolam is meant to bring prosperity and serve as an invitation into one’s home. I also read somewhere that it is a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence, as the white rice powder with which it is drawn is also an invitation for ants and birds to eat it.

Drawn on a carefully swept ground by the women of the household every single morning, during the day the intricate patterns get walked and driven on, blown around by the wind or washed away by rain, only to be drawn again at dawn the next day.

So, in addition to an invitation, the kolam seem to me to be an exercise in patience, humility and an acknowledgment of transience. Three things I must admit I don’t have much of a grip on or a very good understanding of, for that matter. How very un-Hindu of me, I know. Still, as fleeting as they are, I found kolams a much more enticing way to walk into somebody’s home than being greeted by the permanence of an obnoxious, worn-out doormat.

Mehndi | Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

I’ve only been here a day and I’m already turning into a proper hippie. Mehndis – henna hand decorations, are nice, especially if you manage to not get the henna all over yourself and your clothes while it’s drying, as you’re simultaneously trying to take pictures, drink out of a freshly-hacked-opened coconut with a straw and stuff your face with naan, dosai with lentils and chutney.

Besides, unlike that tattoo, which seemed like a great idea when you were drunk and/or 16 and thought there was nothing cooler and deeper the Chinese symbols for ‘wisdom’ and ‘prosperity’, the mehndi doesn’t last nearly long enough to be regretted.