A Photo Journey Around The World
Unique People, Places, And Practices
Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Senior Contributing Editor
Today it is realistically difficult to roam all parts of the world at will, but we can at least dream about possible destinations. You will find here some wide-ranging experiences you might want to add to a list of future explorations.
Colorful wooden houses line the rocky harbors of coastal fishing villages in Greenland, a country covered by an ice sheet for over 80% of its landmass.
Due to climate change, the ice cap and ice fjords (Ilulissat being the largest) are gradually melting, making Greenland the world’s foremost contributor to global sea-level rise.
During summertime, hungry polar bears roam the shores searching for food, as sea ice — their habitual hunting ground for catching ringed seals keeps shrinking. While they face a highly uncertain future, polar bears have also increasingly become a danger to humankind.
Stockfish made the picturesque city of Bergen, founded in 1066 at the end of the Viking Age, one of the largest trading centers in Northern Europe at the time.
Surrounded by mountains, the city’s original name was Bjørgvin, meaning “the green meadow among the mountains.”
From its harbor, the Coastal Express Hurtigruten has been sailing along Norway’s spectacular coastline for over 125 years, from port to port.
If the magical Northern Lights don’t appear on your round-trip — although most likely they will! — a second chance is offered on another voyage, free of charge.
The peaceful charm of Praiano, situated between its more crowded neighbors Positano and Amalfi, is quite a surprise. At its little beach, wedged between the cliffs of nearby Marina di Praia, a sun-lounger or a dive in the turquoise sea can make life just perfect…
In the hamlet of Nocelle, high above the busy SS163, time seems to have stood still. Until recently, this tiny place could only be reached by a flight of 1500 steps from Arienzo beach or along the cliff trail Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods).
From both Nocelle and the 6.5 km long Sentiero, one can enjoy one of the most stunning views of the Amalfi Coast and the Island of Capri.
Yemen, located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has been one of my most memorable travel destinations. During a month-long road trip with a local guide about a decade ago, I was deeply enthralled by the country’s history, culture, nature, architecture, and people. Ah, those unforgettable tea sessions in their hospitable mafraj…
Unfortunately, the country’s fairytale image has been shattered by a complex civil war. Most foreign governments issue a negative travel warning for Yemen since the war’s outbreak in 2014.
Ladakh, situated in the far North of India, takes your breath away, both because of its altitude and low oxygen level, and its otherworldly, moon-like landscape, defined by Buddhist landmarks and the friendly Ladakhi themselves.
Towns and rural communities are built near monasteries, often on elevated, sunny sites. Ladakh’s architecture is almost identical to that of Tibet: thick whitewashed exterior walls with lots of windows to allow the sun to shine inside, and flat roofs to help collect rare rainfalls.
Trekking from guest-house to guest-house, and attending a monastic festival with dancing and music playing monks and novices, dressed up in colorful costumes and papier-mâché masks, is quite an experience. Spotting the elusive snow leopard would be the icing on the cake.
The Tibetan tradition of Buddhist architecture can also be seen in Bhutan, in the Eastern Himalayas. Imposing dzongs — defensive fortresses serving as administrative and religious centers — are often located on hilltops or along vital water streams.
Private houses resemble Swiss chalets and usually have small arched windows with timber shutters, embellished with Buddhist symbols of flowers, animals, foliage, or clouds. Occasionally a large phallus is featured on the walls, representing power and intended to drive evil spirits away.
In March, the annual Paro Tshechu takes place, a spectacular monastic festival with ritual dances, folk songs, and music performances celebrating the introduction of Buddhism in this region.
For a few weeks, I traveled with two Mongolian Kazakhs through the steppes of Mongolia’s far West, to track down a famed Golden Eagle hunter.
Crossing this vast and remote land, we would at times encounter nomad families looking for greener pastures, or those who had already set up camp again and invited us into their modest tent dwelling: the ger. Invariably, we would be offered a meal of homemade bread and dried goat cheese, accompanied by salty tea with yak milk.
It also happened to be the time of Nadaam, a yearly festival in July, in which competitions in wrestling, horse-racing, and archery take center stage.
In the village of Hahoe, tradition reigns.
Clusters of restored hanoks, centuries-old houses made of wood and earth, can be found in this village along the Nahdong River, which meanders in a large S-shape through the foothills of mountain Hwa.
Another traditional feature of Hahoe is its open-air Mask Dance Theatre. Their masked dance-satires, Songpa Sandae Nori, developed in the 19th century in the market of Seoul’s Songpa port during its trading heydays.
To add even more traditional flavor, enjoy a plate or bowl of bibimbap, the country’s national dish that originated many centuries ago as a leftover meal in rural Korea and has been a much-favored staple ever since.
Before the First Opium War of 1842, Shanghai was just a humble fishing village, and only a few decades ago, Pudong on the other side of the Huangpu River, was not more than a stretch of muddy farmland.
In these now bustling neighboring cities, it is not hard to lose oneself in activities like strolling through diverse neighborhoods, watching life in the parks, taking in heritage buildings and futuristic skyscrapers, visiting museums and art galleries, or eating one’s heart out on delicious local specialties.
To escape the urban hubbub for a day, the dreamy and peaceful water town of Zhouzhuang, an ancient trading center, offers quaint canals, bridges, houses, and covered paths.
Death plays a central role in the culture of Tana Toraja, a region in Sulawesi’s highlands. Funeral practices can last for days, consisting in dancing, chanting, drinking, eating, and socializing on the grounds of ancestral homes, the tongkonan. These architectural masterpieces are often adorned with a carved buffalo head on the face of the main house, symbolizing power and wealth.
The most important part of the funeral is the slaughtering of buffaloes, not only as a show of the family’s wealth but also to send off the animals’ souls with the deceased to safeguard their journey to the other world. The meat of the animals is then distributed among the guests, who had eagerly witnessed the slaughtering rituals.
While exploring the Indonesian Archipelago per motorized pinisi, we visited traditional villages along the coast of West Papua, inhabited by Asmat tribes, who are not only excellent woodcarvers but were also known as astute headhunters until a mere 50 years ago.
Our captain went on land to ask permission from Papua elders to set foot on their grounds and returned with a crew of Asmat men in prows to transport us via a small river inland. Dancing, chanting, and drumming crowds on the riverbanks followed us barefoot to the chief’s longhouse, where the happy frenzy continued…
The city of Cuenca, dubbed “The Athens of Ecuador” is a treasure trove of historic sites and dazzling festivals, dating back to Incan and Spanish eras and combining Catholic and indigenous traditions.
Indigenous healers operating at the market can help you snap out of a cold, fatigue, or stress by hitting you vigorously on the head with a bunch of herbs, considered to contain medicinal powers.
The pastel-hued mansions along the cobble-stoned streets of the Pelourinho district in Salvador da Bahia Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985 — date back to Portugal’s colonial glory and serve today as a backdrop for impromptu street parties, music performances, and capoeira dancing troupes.
Salvador is a city of festivals and old traditions. The Catholic faith and Candomblé, a religion based on African spirits and rituals and developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil (dress code: all white), go hand in hand.
According to popular belief, Bonfim ribbons have the power to make wishes come true, once tied twice around the wrist or ankle with three knots.
Traveling along Mauritania’s ancient caravan routes was exhilarating. Except for an occasional camel driver, the vast desert and awe-inspiring starry night sky seemed to be my desert guide’s and mine.
Once, we bumped into a lone nomad family and got invited for tea in their tent. The chief offered to slaughter a little goat, hoping for sunglasses, binoculars, T-shirts, medicines, or toys in exchange.
In the middle of nowhere, we suddenly reached Oualata, a former trading center with stunning architecture: reddish-brown box-like houses decorated with traditional patterns, applied yearly by local women.
Mali has a rich cultural diversity: mud mosques with spiked turrets, the Dogon Valley with its traditional houses and animistic practices, Mopti’s port with its brightly colored pinasses, mysterious blue-robed Tuaregs around Timbuktu, bustling markets in which women in colorful dresses carry enormous loads on their heads, and a spectacular music festival on the riverbanks of the Niger in Segou, where West African artists yearly reunite to sing, dance, make music and act.
The women of the Kassena tribe still carry out the ancient practice of wall decorating in the royal kingdom of Tiébélé, a rural village in southern Burkina Faso.
Their windowless mud houses are built with protection in mind, both from adverse weather and enemies, and are surrounded and interconnected by high walls.
The decoration with colored mud and white chalk is done yearly before the rainy season and includes motifs and symbols from religion and everyday life. The walls are then burnished with stones and coated with varnish from néré (locust bean) pods.
Cameroon has an astounding mixture of populations with nearly 250 different ethnic groups. While trekking through the North with a few fellow travelers, far from any form of “civilization”’, we camped for a few days on the grounds of an isolated Dupa clan inhabiting the foothills of the Vokra Mountains. The men wearing loincloths and the women and children small skirts made of green leaves, the tribe lived in mud huts and fed themselves with products they harvested from surrounding plots, like millet, sorghum, and gourd.
The opportunity to “shadow” the hospitable tribe members during their daily activities was a memorable experience. These included distributing millet from the chief’s granary, grinding and processing the grains to make porridge and beer, cultivating the land with their simple tools, venerating their ancestors’ spirits in the dense sacred forest, and singing and dancing at night in their common courtyard.
Following the rainy season in the Sahel, the nomadic Wodaabe tribe gathers yearly with their cattle and households (a bed and some pots and pans) to celebrate the Gerewol Festival. Courtship rituals of song and dance take center stage. One salient detail: it’s the girl who chooses the boy!
Tall and slender young men spend hours braiding their hair, applying make-up to highlight their most prized facial features — a long nose, white teeth, big eyes — and decking themselves out with feathered headdresses, flashy jewelry, and colorful attire.
Eventually, the young men form a line, and with arms intertwined, they stamp their feet, clap their hands, move back and forth, and chant mesmerizing songs. Several hours into the performance, a girl finally breaks loose from the crowd and slowly moves towards her ‘pick’. A subtle tap on his arm will suffice…
The few people inhabiting the bone-dry Nubian Desert between the Nile and the Red Sea live with their cattle in the vicinity of water wells, in huts made of tree branches, or in concrete shacks with doors painted with typical Nubian patterns.
In this unforgiving, desolate yet striking landscape of sand planes, dunes, rock formations, and dried-out wadis, the many remnants of bygone eras come as a big surprise. Ancient petroglyphs depict animals like gazelles, giraffes, hippos, and crocodiles, suggesting a verdant past. The many sandstone temples and pyramids (photo: Royal Necropolis of Meroe) date back to a period the region belonged to the Empire of Ancient Egypt.
My road trip through the fascinating Horn of Africa included Ethiopia’s North with its monasteries, monolithic churches, and rugged Simien Mountains, and the Omo Valley in the South, rich in wildlife and tribal diversity.
In January, the spectacular Timkat festival is attended by many pilgrims flocking from far and wide to the celebration grounds of Gondar’s castles and palaces and Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches.
Lies Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal, Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke Record, she is presently a freelance writer and photographer for various travel magazines.