Month 16 | Autumn
Marrakech is a city of proximity. Every element of this living organism is a shoulder nudge away. The sandy walls are always by your side, like two towering guards guiding you through smells, colours and sounds of this musical city. If you were to try and break away from your guides the result would be a private space, not yours. Door after door hides the lives of all these people. One street is a library of books if the stories were translated into text.
The Pixel Trade was a very unique experience to photograph the street culture and life for Project Bly, an online resource for street cultures around the world. Project Bly has a philosophy I interpret as this: No matter how hard we try to create guides for the world or cities or towns, they will never be as unique as going on a journey which comes from one foot in front of the other. A city will have it’s own escort if needed. Exploration is perfect.
Interview with Rena
Describe your most memorable adventure as a child.
I have such incredible childhood memories of a family trip to Jaisalmer, a city in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, and an important stop for camel caravans trading between India and Central Asia. With giant sand dunes, camels, castles and stories of kings and queens, it was such an adventure both in my imagination and in reality.
What process do you go through before you travel to a new city for Project Bly?
I read as much as I can about the culture and history, but I also leave some room for serendipity. When I travel, I want to be able to stumble upon the man making toy animals out of tin on a street corner or discover a hidden street stall with delicious kebabs- I don’t want to seek them out after reading about them in a guide book. I want Project Bly to be a place to go for inspiration, and I don’t think I could convey the wonder of discovering the streets of a city if I didn’t do some discovering myself.
Was there a city that you met someone you really admired?
I've met so many warm, talented, smart people in every place I've been, but one person who really stands out was Govind Thakur in Mumbai. With very little schooling, Govind taught himself English as well as everything there is to know about shipping and customs laws, and runs a little company packing and shipping products out of a warehouse tucked away in a slum in South Bombay. After meeting with some bigger unhelpful companies in Bombay with fancy offices, I met Govind through a vendor in Chor Bazaar. He is not just one of the smartest entrepreneurs I’ve encountered, but also a wonderful person.
Why are street cultures important for you to explore and share?
I grew up the daughter of a museum director and as a child, I visited a lot of museums. As a young adult, I made up a “1M rule” and only visited one museum in every place I traveled to. The rest of the time I would just wander the streets of a city without a map. I believe that to really know a city, and learn its secrets you have to wander its streets, you have to explore its markets and share tea with its people at a roadside stall. I hope to inspire people to find their own street adventures wherever they go.
Have you ever been in a dangerous situation?
I've traveled solo quite extensively, both for Bly and for pleasure, but haven’t been in many dangerous travel situations. I believe that people are generally kind and well intentioned, and my instinct is to trust people. Perhaps it’s just luck, but I've had mostly positive experiences.
The only dangerous situations I found myself in were when I was living and studying in Zanzibar in 1999. One was when a small wooden boat packed with people, many of whom couldn't swim, caught on fire-- we were rescued fairly quickly by a fishing trawler, the second was when a big male elephant charged a land rover I was in while on safari-- he veered away just in time, and the third was being mugged at knife point in Stone Town-- it was a very civil encounter, and I handed over what I had, and went on my way.
Has traveling to so many places changed the way you think of the world?
I think the more I travel, the more I realize that no matter how different each country is, they are also so similar. Markets across the world are organized with sections selling just used car parts and other sections selling just chickens or fabric. Similarly, no matter where you are in the world, the smells and sounds of a market are the same. Yes, the music and languages filling the air are different, but market talk across the word is the same.
Was there a time that you realized you achieved independence?
I think that I felt like I had really gained independence when I traveled alone for the first time. I was 23 and spent several months backpacking in Guatemala and Honduras. By then, I had already lived away from home for 7 years, graduated from college, worked and paid my own bills, but traveling alone for the first time really made me feel like the world was mine, and I controlled my destiny. It was an independence I had never felt before.
If you could teach humanity one thing, what would it be and why?
Be kind. Kindness, no matter where you are or where you want to go [in life], will get you further than anything else.
When was the last time you felt defeated by something in life?
It was probably in Kumasi, Ghana on a trip for Project Bly. I got very sick as soon as I got there, which made long days sampling street food and purchasing bolts of Batik fabric in Kejetia Market, one of the oldest and biggest markets in West Africa, exhausting. I kept at it, fever and all, but the day I was supposed to leave, my packing/shipping agent disappeared with no explanation. A vendor in the market ended up helping me pack Bly’s purchases in an alleyway behind his house, and I rented a van and driver to get to Accra with the boxes. Project Bly hadn’t launched yet, and it was the only time I wanted to give up. I felt like I was truly crazy for having left a successful career as a lawyer to pack boxes in alleyways with a fever in West Africa.
Describe your most memorable adventure as an adult.
Aaah, that's a tough one! My first job was as an engineer on offshore oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico. I didn't know anything about oil rigs except for what I had seen watching the movie Armageddon starring Ben Afleck. I was 22, the only woman on the rigs I worked on, and it was a tough year, but a memorable adventure nonetheless. I have several stories to tell as well as a pair of well worn steel- toed doc martens from my rig days.
My most memorable travel adventure, however, was probably to Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. Home to Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, Ferghana, was like no other place I’d been before. Canopies of grape vines shade sidewalks and pomegranates and apples grow wild there. It’s so beautiful.
If you had to recommend a favorite music album, what would it be?
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II