How to Enjoy Mexico: understand its background first!

Dear Reader,

It’s been almost three since I moved to Mexico and I don’t feel I have fully explained this wonderful country. I wrote several posts on it and it will probably take several chapters to even slightly envision what Mexico is and it’s worth doing so. I want you to feel it as if you were here with me exploring this remarkable land.

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The beautiful and shining Guanajuato town.

It sounds so basic and futile when you think about it, as if by reading the title the imminent thought would be “oh come on, no need for guidelines”. But believe me, there is a science behind the enjoyment of a new city or even country, especially one you hope to survive without stress and melancholy. You might also think that all it takes is to join a tour or simply read about it on a travel guide.

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Learn how to make tacos. It’s fundamental in order to understand how delicious they can be…

Let’s take Mexico as an example. Mexico is a huge country full of colours, culture and above all contradictions. They say that here in Mexico you will find four stories: the one the Government wants you to believe, the one academic institutions want to teach, one that foreigners want to explain. And the last one, the one you have to discover yourself. And this is mine.

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Cute little restaurant in Mexcaltitán, the Venice of Mexico

Certain beliefs and conceptions of reality characterise some populations more than others, and Mexico recalls images of ancient civilisations, plundering Spanish conquistadores and moustachioed revolucionarios. The many contradictions of this vibrant country lie in its unique history and are deeply reflected in the character and personality of the people. The expansive friendliness of norteños (Mexicans from the northern states) compared to the more defensive and rebellious southern Chiapanecos (people from Chiapas state). Mexicans can be intensely fatalistic, resigned even. And when the mood takes in, they are hedonistic and carefree. A reserved poker face will suddenly give way to astonishing warmth and familiarity.

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Indigenous children from the sort of forgotten state Chiapas

We know Mexico’s first hundred years were bloody while the last eighty-five years have been at peace; it shares a long land border with the United states and yet they couldn’t be more different.
When the Spanish brought Catholicism, the missionaries took a very pragmatic approach to it and incorporated many beliefs from earlier religions. That’s why there are so many religious festivals here like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the Muxis (gay/transgender divinity festival), the Guelaguetza and many others that blend Catholic celebrations with indigenous rituals.

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Mexico is dual.

It emerged from its bloody history and claimed its place in the modern world. And now globalisation and free trade is altering Mexican society once again.

 

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Iran: Veiling and Unveiling Women

Dear Reader,

Let’s continue our long and incredible adventure in Iran. We said it before, Iran is a land of contrast and probably defies what most people think of it. And even more to this, women in Iran strongly belong to this notion. In fact, it is because of Iranian women that I truly believe that contrasts are a vital cog of any Iranian experience and those same contrasts are leading the ladies and others to keep quiete no more.

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Women’s movement in is peaceful yet powerful. Historically, women have lived in a relative progressive society and enjoyed more freedom and equality than any of their neighbours. Women were workers, owners, sellers and tax payers.
With the arrival of Islam, women rapidly saw a decline in their position at every level.
Then things changed again. In the 1930’s, Reza Shah started legislating for women by granting them the right to seek divorce. He also encouraged them to work outside their homes and abolished the veil, a move that polarised opinion among progressive and conservative women. Finally, women gained the right to vote in the 1960’s.
But when in 1979 Iran became an Islamic Republic following the fierce Revolution, the adoption of the Sharia Law affected women enormously. Legal age for women plummeted from 18 years old to 9 years old (for boys is 15). Women were obligated by law to wear the headscarf (‘rusari’ in Farsi) and were not allowed to appear in public with a man to whom they were not related to.

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On 8 March 1979, more than 100,000 women gathered on the streets of the Iranian capital to protest against the new Islamic government’s compulsory hijab ruling, which meant a compulsory use of a headscarf when away from home. The protest was held on International Women’s Day. Photo source: @ Rare Historical Photos

Many things changed for women, freedom of travel, expression, family law fell under religious jurisdiction which means that for a woman to seek a divorce became almost impossible.

What do women dress and look like today in Iran?

Nowadays, and given the diverse background, it is safe to say that most women have had a taste of what emancipation is. Still, under the law women who venture outdoors must wear a headscarf, known as the “rusari”, and a long overcoat, known as the “manteau”; alternatively, they can wear a black cloak known as the “chador”. These are legal requirements, punishable by fines or imprisonment for repeat offenders.

Traveling through Iran, from north to deep south, I noticed that the strictness of this law depends on many factors. Number one is where you happen to be. I noticed that in Tehran women tend to be more rebel. They push back their rusaris, wear heavy make up and like to reveal their hair in abundance.

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How strictly the law is enforced depends on many factors. Partly, it is down to where you happen to live: in affluent north Tehran, women tend to push back their rusaris to reveal an abundance of hair. Their “manteaus” are multi-coloured and stylishly nipped in at the waist.

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Young people I met at the Sad’ Abad Complex.
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Girl I met at a shisha bar in Tehran.

As soon as I left Tehran towards south, everything became more conservative. In conservative rural Iran, women tend to abide by the rule significantly more. They wear drab black “chadors” and wear little make up to avoid standing out.

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Foreign women are not required to wear it, however, there have been few are very few circumstances where I had to wear a chador and it normally happened at a few holy shrines, such as the Imam Shrine in the outskirts of Tehran.

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My friend Alicia is wearing the white chador as required to enter the Imam shrine.

Everywhere you go, though, I could simply wear any headscarf I had.

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My friend Marina on the left and myself are wearing headscarves of varied colours and length.

How women are allowed to dress also depends on which political faction it’s in power at the moment. If hardliners are in the ascendancy, it might be wise to conceal every lock of hair on the streets of Tehran; if reformers are in office, like it was when I was in Iran, you might try wearing your rusari so far back as to render it almost invisible.

These women have pushed a silent rebellion against the laid back government with such power that it has reached international recognition almost everywhere. From the rich Iranian teenagers of Tehran (known as The Rich Kids of Tehran) to the more women-oriented My Stealthy Freedom.

Then finally, a different faction of women that are neither reformers nor conservative. The nomad women. These beautiful women have a complete different mindset, background and even religion, being true holders of the Persian Zoroastrian belief. We will talk about them in my next post so stay tuned to continue our discovery of more incredible women…

 

 

 

Rebellious and Fashionable Iranian ladies

Dear Reader,

time to break the backward image most people get from just hearing the name “Iran”.
There are many things to say on this regard but this time I will start with a small preview on women fashion…

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Too modern and too conservative at the same time. Fashion in Iran is more than The Rich Kids of Tehran and highly linked to a strong feeling of rebellion. Stay tuned for my story.

 

How to take Photos with your Mobile

Dear Reader,

It’s time to learn something new today 🙂
Experience teaches us a lot, especially when we’re on the road. Nothing makes a story more beautiful and interesting than colourful eye-catching photos taken on the go.
Most of us travellers rely on good cameras with settings. However, as we travel and share instant snaps on our blog or social media, we often recur to smartphones. You need to be able to use your smartphone well, especially if you go to places where cameras are either not welcome or you don’t have time to set up your regular camera. Smartphones are more conspicuous and with technology that allow us to do wonderful things.

So here are few tips I learnt myself 🙂

Think Mobile

Before using a picture, look at it on your smartphone and ensure your main subject is clear and any writing, such as a sign, is legible. Keep in mind that most people will check your photos and articles from their phones so make your shots mobile friendly and neat.

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If you’re able to read the 007 commemorative sign then it’s a successful mobile-friendly photo

Keep it Simple

I learnt that my most popular photos are the simplest ones. They don’t have many people in them, multiple props, and complicated staging. The most effective images so far have been those with simple subjects, such as a close-up of a situation, object, person or even buildings.

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Play with Light and Shadow

Both Samsung (S7 series) and iPhones allow you to adjust the lighting by simply tapping on the screen so pay attention to your scene’s lighting. Bright light and deep shadows create a stark contrast that can make your photo more interesting and dramatic.

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Natural light inside the peacock dome
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The Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan was a tad darker than the peacock dome mosque so here all I did was slightly augmenting the contrast level.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough not to need any of these 🙂 just because the light is so naturally beautiful and unique (Iran has plenty of these places where light is so mystical you can play with it for hours). So before you start thinking about tapping on the screen of your phone, analyse your surrounding and catch the elements already at your disposal.

Follow the Rule of Thirds

If your subject is a person or more people, have them closer to either side, or along the top or bottom, rather than in the center. This is the rule of thirds, where you basically break an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts.

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The Rule of Thirds

Studies have shown that if you place the subject along the intersection lines rather than the center of the frame – the photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.

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If you divide this photo in 9 squares, my face comes right up to the lower right intersection.

An exception: Faces. Faces can be anywhere in the frame.

Subject / Try different Perspectives

Mix big and small things and create an interesting contrast with different perspectives. For example, put a subject close to the camera and others in the background to create a more spaced composition.

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The Salisbury Cathedral from a dark side.

You can either take a typical frontal photo of the Jame Mosque like this one…

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Or you can be creative by simply changing angle like my friend Marina did with this photo of me under the crystal-turquoise arch and make it sensational.

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Don’t Zoom and Don’t Flash

I learnt using my own flash is a terrible idea, just as bad as zooming.
If you really must use artificial light because you’re either in a dark setting or because you want to give your photo a magazine look, get help from a friend. Ask your friend to point their smartphone flashlight (or a proper flashlight, if available) at the subject from a different angle of yours.

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This photo was an experiment using my friend who was sitting next to me and her iPhone flashlight. The room was already very well lit but her flash allowed me to highlight the food in more detail.

Don’t photograph directly with Instagram

Instagram comes with a preset square mode that will not allow you to crop or give your subject proper focus. It is better that you take your photo with your regular camera vertically (regular full-sized portrait mode). This way you will be able to visualise more and not be limited to format constrictions. You can always edit the photo later, just get the first one properly sized.

Use interesting elements

Be creative and use the elements around you to make a photo interesting. Most of the time it will spontaneous but consider spending some time analysing the surrounding to create an appealing photograph in such way that it almost tells a story on its own.

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My subject was the balcony_restaurant San Fernando, however, what makes this photo attractive are the live musician dedicating their tunes to the restaurant’s clientele.

 

Add a focal point and varied textures

When setting up your photo, ensure you have a subject in the foreground that provides a focal point. Use varied textures that create an interesting contrast.

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A flower I found on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. Notice the blurred background.

Blend in and Ask for Permission

Before snapping a photo of a local merchant or nomads, always ask. No need to invasively snap a quick shot and run (you probably wouldn’t like it done to you either). If you ask you’d be surprised at how receptive people are to smiling 🙂

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Nomads of Iran. It is a distinct luck to actually find and interact with them

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And last but not least…

Say NO to selfie sticks!

The idea of a selfie is having an impromptu photo of yourself with a background that you like. And as such, it should look like a rustic spontaneous shot. A stick defies this logic because it forces a selfie to look like anything BUT a natural moment.

Not only selfie sticks are very annoying (blocking views, turning a memory trip to a self-aware photo trip) and have a lot of tourist destinations now banned them, but also the angle that the stick creates is unoriginal and fake given the effort of hiding who’s taking the photo.

 

Take normal selfies. Be natural.

 

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How to get A free coffee: the Pending Espresso

Dear Reader,

Italians are masters of many noble inventions and deeds, most of them taken from unnoticed customs in other countries where they did not receive much attention evidently. Truth to be told, we did not invent pizza, pasta, coffee but we certainly invented the way the rest of the world conceives, serves and drinks coffee, starting from the linguistics of it (espressocappuccino, latte macchiato, etc) to the steam-driven espresso machine (first pioneered by Angelo Moriondo in 1884), to the more stylish brands (Illy and Lavazza, my favourite). If coffee has a spiritual home, this is it. Italy.

Today 🙂 let me delight you with some Italian coffee culture.

“Work is that annoying thing that we do between one coffee break and another” – by Maurizio Crozza

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The Espresso-macchiato:  an espresso literally “stained” with a light amount of steamed milk. This is my friend Riccio‘s favourite although she might have transitioned to the more tasteful marocchino, another great invention from north of Italy, which carries a mix of espresso, cocoa powder and milk froth.

In Italy having coffee is a form of art: is a ritual that may be practiced more times in a day depending on the need, before a meal, after lunch, a work break, etc. Come to a bar and live the full coffee experience. A bar, normally very crowded and noisy coffee house, is where people gather to have coffee and meet friends, discuss politics and sports. It’s where they start their day and, at times, where it ends along with an aperitivo.

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This is a typical bar in Rome, more specifically in Ostia Antica, my home town. Normally crowded, this bar is located right outside the train station.

The barista, the man or woman behind the bar who prepares the coffee is key element to this tradition. He joins random conversations, debates, he or she is normally friends with the regular customers. Coffee gives us morning boost, helps digest our food, avoid nappy desire and open the evening together with aperitivos. In few words: coffee rules our lives.

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Cappuccino, my absolute favourite: 50% hot milk, 50% espresso with foam to the top usually had for breakfast. Traditional Italians would curse me if they knew I have cappuccino also after meals, even if I ate fish. I don’t care because it’s just too good.

But let’s go deeper into Italian culture and tradition and explore a very unknown term to most foreigners: a pending espresso, or caffé sospeso or caffé pagato (paid coffee).

The caffé sospeso is a concept mostly unknown to rest of the world, a very old Italian tradition that enchants many because of its romantic simplicity: gifting an espresso to somebody.

Born in Naples during Second World War, this habit came to symbolise solidarity in a very critic moment in Italian history. Those who could afford an espresso at the bar normally would pay for a second coffee to pay for a coffee many times they would pay for another one which would be left pending. This pending coffee would later be given to anyone who wished to have it (normally it would be someone poor or homeless).

In that very moment of our history, coffee became a sympathetic and philanthropic gesture made by any happy person entering a bar.

Precisely because a person was happy, he or she would decide to have an espresso at the bar and pay for an additional one to be assigned to anyone. In few words, an espresso was offered to a stranger, any stranger coming into the bar later on.

This person, aware of the tradition, would go to bartender and ask if there were any pending coffees.

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Nino Manfredi on the most classic Lavazza Caffé ad of 1986.

Sinking Buildings: a curse or consequence?

Dear Reader,

Mexico City could have an entire collection of strange facts and curiosities. Here is one. Sinking buildings are a curious phenomenon occurring in Mexico City affecting mainly Hispanic churches.

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The Ex Teresa Arte Actual museum is inclined over its right side

The ground is slowly giving up as most of these buildings were erected on an already built up Aztec city.
The Aztec’s legacy people of today dare to suggest the phenomenon to be a silent vengeful curse…

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The leaning Metropolitan Cathedral on the right side.

The city is sinking on a daily basis, so far it has gone down of about 10 metres in the last few decades.

One theory explains that underneath the city is located the aqueduct which sustains the thirst of over 9 million people. As millions of people drink its water, it slowly becomes less sustaintable and more prone to degradation and debilitation of the structure.
Another explanation dates back from the Aztecs and the Spanish arrival: during the Aztec period when the city was known as Tenochtitlan, the town was initially built on a Lake Texcoco by creating islands using dumped soil right into the lagoon. When the Spanish arrived they erected a second city on top of the Aztec ruins after been demolished. A city atop of another, basically.

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Templo Mayor Ruins (Main Temple), or the remains of it.

The base, however, was a lake. Drained and all, but still a lake.

This has caused buildings to lean and sink into the ground at a rate of up to one foot a year in the most extreme places.

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This is the pendulum hanging inside the Matropolitan Cathedral right on main aisle. If you look carefully, the pendulum shows you how the foundations of the cathedral have been shifting since it’s conception.

And last, a balcony that has suffered from unevenness of the ground and shows a wavy effect as a result of the ground’s debilitation.

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The Witchy Sonora Market

Dear Reader,

Are you superstitious? Do you think you are followed by bad luck? Do you suspect your neighbour is trying to poison you? Harbouring revenge over your cheating wife or husband?
Then this is the right place for you then: travel with me to one of the creepiest sides of Mexico.

Remember how I went on about Sicilian superstitions? This time it is not that amusing but rather a more serious deal. Just walk with me as I take you to the colourful and creepy Mercado de Sonora.

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It was about 3 pm in Mexico City, just after lunch. The travel team had already covered the must-see places and things in this gigantic metropolis so I was very keen on looking for the kind of things I like: the strange things. I was told about the obscure Mercado de Sonora, filled with occult things and cures for anything that ails you…

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Local 313 is known as Santa (saint), dedicated to spiritual cleansing, love binding, banishments and tarot reading.

It look like a very big market place focused on esoteric items, the ideal place for those interested in mysticism, occultism and hidden wisdom (a term cherished by many).

It was creepy, for sure, but also very interesting and certainly a nice detour from the regular city attractions.

Vendors were friendly and invited us in easily, though they preferred to remain hidden in front of my camera. See photo below.

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Store specialised in spiritual cleansing.

 

As we walked by the aisles, vendors asked us questions and offered us all kinds of solutions to our daily life’s troubles. Things like herbs, claws of garlic, water and essences spray, soaps, saints, skulls, ritual pamphlets, anything you can imagine, including the illegal trade of animals.

The Mercado Sonora is home to many religions other than Catholicism. Here I found a wide range of vernacular religions, sorcery practices and other bizarre faiths and convictions. Voodoo is no stranger here either, with all its incredible imagery and rituals.

It got more and more interesting as I walked through it. Aisled are stuffed with witchcraft items, potions, dolls and amulets.

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Amulets of all kinds.

This creepy market offers a wide range of items that serve to fulfil any macabre wish people harbour. The rich variety of products and shamanistic items will feed your imagination. There are stands with skulls, skeleton representations and dubious containers among other items.

People who believe they are being cursed or ill-wished come to Mercado Sonora to have a spiritual cleansing known as limpia. It is a very common practice and not only in Mexico. It’s a process which normally involves the use of incense, singing prayers and herbal items, either ingested or brushed upon the affected person.

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This is just one of the precious occult jewels of Mexico City. And there are more on my list to come soon 🙂

 

Photo of the Day: Stanito in Esfahan

Dear Reader,
One of the best benefits of traveling in company is that casually your travel buddies are excellent photographers. My friend Lichix took this photo of me in Esfahan while visiting the stunning Masjed-e Jameh Mosque, the biggest mosque in Iran and the pioneer of Islamic architecture.

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With this post I’m opening a thread of How-To posts dedicated on how to take beautiful pictures in places where the camera is not very welcome. Stay tuned! 🙂

Stoic Belgrade

Dear Reader,

there are more cities in Europe that deserve your attention aside from the typical already too-beaten capitals and fancy sparkling towns.

So, in an effort of continuing our off the beaten path philosophy, forget for a moment about Paris, London, Rome and Madrid and let’s move towards east and land in the heart of Former Yugoslavia. The beautiful and laid-back Belgrade.

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I decided to join my friend Riccio and visit this vibrant city as it is the home town of my mother’s family and I ended up discovering a true artsy and unpredictable beauty.

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In spite of its set backs and destruction derived from recent conflict, Belgrade brazenly holds a classical and artistic look worthy of any European capital without being too glossy and chic.

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It is one of those places that I dearly love visiting as it fights to prove any misconception people may have towards Serbians.

Even though post-war lingers on, Belgrade has an underlying confidence and artistic cloak to it.

Belgrade’s history is long and and with many layers. Destroyed and tarnished many many times, Belgrade holds a strategic position in trade roads and it is the joining point of two rivers: the Sava and the Danube.

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Poser Stanito overlooking the joining rivers Sava and Danube

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Former capital of Yugoslavia from its inception as a kingdom in 1918, throughout the post World War II socialist era, right up until Serbia was the last man standing in 2006. Serbs are known for being warriors and proud of their heritage, however, many Belgraders still express a ‘yugonostalgic’ longing for the multiculturalism and porous borders of the socialist era due to their shared origins and languages. Together with its neighbours, Serbia shares the same spoken language while only the writing is different as Serbia is the only one that uses the Cyrillic alphabet).

Yugoslavia was first a kingdom and then, after World War II, a socialist regime headed by the still much-loved Marshal Josip Broz Tito who attempted to reinstate a pan-Slavic identity and bring the religious disparities under one roof.

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Street graffiti

Belgrade, with its rich culture, is the city the breaks the Balkans backwardness and veiled progress. In spite of being a European capital, Belgrade has a harder time to prove its attractiveness and worth. While still recovering from war and bombing, Belgrade’s modern side twists into an interesting artistic side.


Belgrade have lived through many traumatic Yugoslav wars until 2001, which ended in a sort of pan-Slavic experiment. The violence perpetrated by Serbian forces led the socialist republic into a whirlpool of international banishment while internally struggling under repression for many years.

Just take a walk down Nemanjina St. to realise how Belgrade’s recent past lingers on people’s minds. Here you will see the Yugoslav Ministry of Defence building harshly bombed during the NATO attack in 1999 and such view dominates the entire landscape.

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However, Belgrade prevails. Its gastronomy is simply delightful and night life make it one of the most hip-happening cities in the eastern side.

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Stanito eating delicious Gibanica

Despite the long lasting tumult, people in Belgrade know how to have a good time. Cafés and bars are heaving day and night, and their terraces are a simple reminder of European elegance. In few words, Belgrade enjoys the Mediterranean lifestyle of Greece, Croatia, Italy without really having a coastline. Bars are fancy and beautiful, filled with people from all over the region.

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Do you want to have fun in the Balkans? Come to Belgrade 🙂

 

 

Did you know…

that Pijama is a Persian word?

Dear Reader,
Discovering origins can really surprise us, just like when the Romans invented the bikini or else they took and made it famous (we Italians are known for taking existing inventions and improve them, like coffee, pizza and pasta, no argument on this 🙂 ). This is another new segment I dedicate to the Persian contribution to modern languages.

Pijama comes from the Persian pai jameh (پايجامه), which means ‘Leg Clothing’.

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A muslim girl wearing a pijama. 1844. (c) Didactalia

Originally only used by men who did not wish to go to bed naked, usually composed by two pieces: a top part and a bottom part, looking very much like loose trousers. Higher ranking men also used a one-piece pai jameh.

It must have been very comfortable and chic. By the 18th century the use of pijamas was already widespread, making the ‘Persian loose pants’ a unique trade mark. It quickly displaced the old fashioned night-garment, a one-piece of heavy wool or velvet that stretched to the feet, prompting the use of linen instead.