Photo Essay: Remarkable Women Around the Globe

Exploring everyday life in Turkey, Morocco, Tanzania, Mexico and Thailand

Menders and Mendes in Istanbul

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

They sit together on the ground at the end of a bustling street, huddled over a sprawling quilt in simple flowered dresses that ride up over plump legs. Tightly wrapped headscarves hide silvering strands of hair. Doors on nearby trains swoosh, a backbeat to the women’s animated chatter and darting needles.

Another woman looks on—long and leggy, she seems to have little in common with the trio below, except perhaps a love of sweets. Her hair is freed and flowing, her body sculpted, her dress glamorous, her posture languorous, her appetites big. For her, ice cream is not a luxury; it’s a given, as essential as female camaraderie and teamwork.

Women today struggle to be many things—dedicated caregivers; expert workers; devoted friends; owners of their bodies, pleasures and freedoms.

The tears in such a complex quilt can be hard to stitch together.

Floating Feast in Bangkok

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Hundreds of longtail boats—means of transport and commerce—crisscross the 1,682 canals (klongs) of Bangkok, Thailand, the fascinating and chaotic Venice of the East. The boat I ride coasts past starkly contrasting scenes—shimmering gilded temples alongside teetering wooden shanties, heart-piercing sentinels in a city of extremes.

At Taling Chan Floating Market, eight miles west of the city’s center, dozens of wooden boats moored along canal banks teem with seafood, fresh produce and boat owners who sell and cook for hungry customers.

A woman, serene and lovely, ladles concoctions from an array of ceramic urns fronted by gorgeous produce. I imagine myself heaping tomatoes and limes into leaf-lined baskets—and floating them on a river.

In one of the stalls, I buy a wood-plank painting of a small boat from the artist who created it. This boat, like the three-dimensional ones that surround me, is laden with fish. My priceless catch of the day.

Sunrise Sellers in the Sahara

Sand-swept winds swirl outside my tent in a remote area of Morocco’s Sahara Desert and blow open the flap. I walk out onto the dunes to gaze at a brilliant, gem-studded sky. The stars are close enough to hold–and keep.

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

This is not a place to sleep, but to listen and watch.

I head out again at 4:30 to see the sun rise over the Algerian border. But the blazing ball cannot compete with the stunning view taking shape on the dunes to the south—several young women cross the pinnacles, trudge down the slopes and crouch. Each claims what seems to be a predetermined spot.

They have walked many miles through the night to find camp customers for their mysterious bounty. How did they find their way across this searing sea of sand?

Their red garments, the yellow desert and the orange-tinged dawn are imprinted in my memory. 

What are they doing now, I wonder?

Burka on the Beach in Krabi, Thailand

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

The speed boat zips along the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea from Krabi to Hong Island, where sculptural limestone cliffs punctuate a crystalline lagoon and invite snorkeling, swimming and sunning. Towering trees rim the white sand beach, offering a sheltered vantage point for people watching.

A svelte, burka-clad woman glides gracefully across the sands and pauses to look at the lagoon. She cuts an elegant, regal figure among the clusters of barely dressed bodies. There are no apparent signs of self-consciousness in her bearing—nothing, it seems, will impede her enjoyment of the spectacular surroundings. She wades in.

Sunscreen-slathered swimmers head for the cliffs. Me included. I am bitten by unseen underwater creatures and the sun scorches my skin.

I think about the protection layers of fabric provide against the elements and the aquatic environs of southern Thailand.

Maasai Roof Thatcher Near the Serengeti

She lives in a Maasai village in eastern Tanzania, leading a savannah life that has changed little over the centuries.

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

Fabric-draped, she climbs the roof of the circular hut she built and replenishes its thatch, one of dozens of tasks that occupy a day filled with industry. She is a procreator, guardian, craftswoman. She milks the cattle that are the economic lifeblood of this village; collects water, firewood and grasses in the bush; cooks and constructs.

From high atop her hut, she surveys the landscape. Dogs dart along the earthen paths. Small children gather around their mothers’ legs as they chant, dance and strut their elaborate beaded jewelry.

Small and windowless, the interior of the hut is dark and holds just two beds, one for the children and another for the parents. The contents of the shelter are spare, but the life it contains brims with community and tradition.

Clean Water Miracle in Arusha, Tanzania

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

In a roadside dwelling at the outskirts of Arusha and the expansive wilderness of the Serengeti, a woman and her family receive a simple gift with the power to eliminate the water contamination that threatens them daily.

My day began at the Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa facility where a worker demonstrated the organization’s efforts to enhance access to clean water in Africa. Founded by an American woman and volunteer pottery instructor in 2008, the nonprofit produces affordable ceramic filters that remove 99.9% of dangerous impurities. Visitors can buy the Maji Salama filters and distribute them to people in need.

That need is endless. But this one filter, placed in a large bucket, will last the family five years. Half a decade potentially free of dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

The woman breathlessly reaches out for her bucket and smiles broadly. She will come to know the taste of safety.

Splendor and Squalor in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

She huddles on the curb in front of a cobblestoned street against a vividly colored colonial building that dwarfs her already diminutive form.

Photo credit: Donna Sapolin.

The yellow and ochre stucco walls are illuminated by rays that flow over the mountains to the east of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico into El Jardin, the city’s main square. Stunningly intact 17th- and 18th-century buildings line the center’s streets, broadcasting brilliant hues.

This is an enchanting city whose architecture, grand cathedral, boutiques, markets, art and cuisine have long attracted U.S. expatriates and visitors from all over.

Chicagoan Stirling Dickinson visited San Miguel in 1937, moved there, then spearheaded its renaissance. It has been casting a spell on artists, and anyone seeking reinvention, ever since.

Nicknamed The Heart of Mexico, San Miguel set my heart beating. But not everyone here benefits equally from its treasures.