Posts Tagged With: farm

They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)

 

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-003

This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-008

I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-011

Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

Iceland Godafoss 2018-036

Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

Iceland Myvatn 2018-023-Edit

What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ever Northward

We are now near the town of Sauðárkrókur, which if you’re allergic to the weird typography is written as Saudarkrokur in non-Icelandic. That’s actually a little misleading since the third character, the ð, looks like a d but is actually pronounced th. But the main point is that it is at a latitude of 65.7°, which puts us about 55 miles (90 km) below the Arctic Circle. You wouldn’t know it from the weather, which was mostly sunny and mild today, reaching about 15 C (59 F). The relatively balmy temperatures and the sunshine, combined with much milder winds, made it a fine day to continue our drive to the north and take in the scenery, which at its most idyllic looked like this.

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-EditIceland Grabrok and North 2018-026Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-029

I took the top two via drone; it was a good day for that too. All three shots were taken about halfway into today’s journey, when we stopped for lunch at a turnoff from the road next to the river in the picture. Our company was a team of sheep herders and their dogs and ATV, rounding up an enormous flock on a nearby hillside.

Our first stop of the day had actually been an hour earlier, at the Grábok (the name means “gray rock”) cinder cones, the remnants of a not-completely-ancient volcano. It’s setting is a stark volcanic landscape with close greenish-yellow ground cover, as you can see here.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-012

This particular environmental motif is typically Icelandic: if you live outside of the city you are morally obliged to build a white farmhouse with a red roof on an otherwise desolate landscape with mountains in the background. If you don’t believe me, compare that last photo to the first one in this post after the lead-in paragraph. See?

Grábok is about 100 meters tall and has a convenient boardwalk leading up its side and around the crater rim. You can see it clearly in this drone view, taken from about 100 meters above the crater rim:

 

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-016

(I also shot a nice video of the drone flyoner, which I will post at a later date.) You may also notice a few rows of stones, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the image and about a quarter of the way in from the right. That is an archaeological site, the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th century, when the Norse first arrived in Iceland. In the century or so after those initial settlements, the locals were building sod houses like these.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-062

 

The walls and the roof are all made of chunks of sod as advertised, and since plants like to grow upwards, the roofs sprout. These particular guys are found at the  Glaumbaer Folk Museum, a little ways south of Sauðárkrókur. They are surprisingly sophisticated dwellings, extending two stories underground and containing kitchens, storage areas, and dormitory-like bunk bed sleeping quarters. The fronts of the buildings are made of wood as you can see (now reconstructed, of course), which raises the obvious question of how you build with wood when there are no trees around. The terrain is bleak and treeless, with not a lot of promising building materials. But we are very close to the coast, and so the answer is: driftwood! The early inhabitants gathered enough driftwood to build houses, furniture, and (I presume) horse carts.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them around. Small in stature but nimble on the rough ground and on ice, Icelandic horses are all the descendants of the initial cargoes of ponies from Norway, brought over in the 10th and 11 centuries. They still look like ponies, and according to my dictionary definition they are ponies, being barely 5 feet  (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder. However, you must not call them ponies here. To Icelanders they are horses, dammit, and if you call the horses “ponies” the locals will throw you into a fjord with your hiking boots tied around your neck.

I should also mention that they all have gorgeous manes; they all look either blow-dried or carefully windblown. You can admire the mane that this not-pony is sporting against a dramatic background.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-056-Edit

Beautiful, yes, but what are all these horses for? There isn’t a big demand for draft animals in Iceland these days, and a horse this size would hardly do the job anyway. The answer is that most are pets or used for riding, and the ones that aren’t suitable for either of those or for breeding are… eaten. (Do not tell my niece, who is a very avid and experienced horsewoman.)

I mention all this horse stuff because our lodgings this evening are a beautiful 3-bedroom guest house on a working farm about 10 km south of Sauðárkrókur. And by a “working farm” I mean that the owners were out all day gathering sheep into this pen:

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-066

(The horns notwithstanding, these are all ewes. The males are kept separately.) Like most farms it is kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we returned to town for dinner, driving northward along the fjord around sunset as a sharply-defined cloud layer formed a few tens of meters over the water, hovering like a gigantic UFO.  The town itself is very small, with a only a couple thousand inhabitants, and just about the only restaurant was the suspiciously-named “Hard Wok”, whose two-page menus offered cuisine from about five different countries, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food. Our meals were surprisingly good.

Tomorrow, we fuel up — with actual diesel this time, thank you very much — and continue eastward and a little farther north.

 

 

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nerdstock: Eclipse-o-Mania

Well, the eclipse has most spectacularly come and gone, and as you can see we were dressed for success: 2017-08-21 08.49.13

 

Anyone who sees this picture — notice the NASA logo on my left arm — immediately recognizes that we are serious people who are not to be trifled with. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having made the wise decision to push on to our B&B in Bend on Saturday night, we could take a relaxed approach to our preparations on Sunday morning while keeping an eye on traffic via Google Maps. The normal drive time from Bend to Madras is about 50 minutes, and we figured we’d hit the road once we saw that number starting to creep up.

Our warm and wonderful B&B hosts, Deb and Kevin — seriously, look for Duck Hollow if you ever overnight in Bend, Oregon — equipped us with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and a backpack filled with utensils, paper plates, etc., to help us weather the ardors of sleeping in our Macho Mobile out in the desert with a gazillion other people. They bid us a cheery “Namaste” (they’re like that, and this is Oregon) and off we went at 10:15 AM.

And a good thing too, because our traffic planning turned out to be just right, and had we left even an hour or two later we would have gotten badly bogged down in Traffic Hell. Alas, our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper (the “exotic” applies to both “travel” and “buddies”) were an hour or two behind us and ended up bailing out before ever reaching the parking area in Madras, opting instead to find an “unofficial” field or parking lot a bit further south in which to overnight. But we did successfully connect with my old astronomer friend/colleague/grad school flatmate John, who drove up from San Francisco with his partner Marianne and his telescope. Here’s the man, the setup, and the setting, about an hour before the eclipse started:

Solar Eclipse 2017-015 You will immediately note three things: (1) John looks like Santa Claus; (2) there are a lot of cars; and (3) there are clouds in the sky. The latter mostly disappeared in the nick of time, fortunately. As for the cars, yes, there were a whole lot of them, and quite the panoply of people as well, e.g.,

Solar Eclipse 2017-020

Solar Eclipse 2017-019

6202

That’s Mt Jefferson (10,495′ / 3200 m) in the background in the middle photo. The bottom photo (taken by Marianne) speaks for itself. I’m not sure what it’s saying, or who those people are, but it definitely speaks for itself. Note that in addition to the metal hats and ray guns, the three men are all wearing metallic, um, crotch protectors. They explained the choice thusly: “It’s to protect future generations.” All righty, then.

You can tell from the photos that the terrain was basically a fallow field. Well, not basically: it was a fallow farm field, three of them in fact, all baked to dust in the high desert sun, with endless row of shallow farrows stretching to infinity. They covered about 100 acres (40 hectares) in total and held row after row of cars, the occasional food stand, and the definitely-too-occasional portable toilet. By the time we arrived, the first two fields were full and we were one of the first arrivals in the third.

The temperature was broiling in the midday sun, the air filled with lightly blowing fine dust that got into absolutely everything… and the sky was cloudy and smoky. Oregon has been plagued by serious wildfires whose smoke has blanketed parts of the state, and there was a real worry that our view of the sun would be impeded by it. Happily, it blew away overnight with a change in the wind. But smoke or no smoke, the atmosphere was nerdily festive to the point of surrealism (see “protect future generations” photo above). There was a nearby small airport housing a skydiving school and a collection of World War II warplanes, and we were treated to both: large teams of skydivers (nearly 20 at one point) periodically dropped from the sky to land in a field diagonally across the street from us, and we were occasionally overflown by squadrons of WW II warbirds, half a dozen 1940’s fighters and bombers circling the sky above us.

I found the WW II planes kind of reassuring, Nazis being a thing again these days, apparently. You can’t be too sure.

We were comfortably ensconced in the Macho Mobile with our blankets, sleeping bags, and a few kilos of windblown dust, but it was not a comfortable night. A goodly fraction of those thousands of cars were rentals (including ours), operated by people who were not yet accustomed to all the little buttons on their car key fobs. And thus the desert night was punctuated by one or another car alarm going off about every five minutes, as some hapless driver attempted to exit his or her vehicle in search of a Port-a-Potty, pressing the panic button instead of the unlock button. (Full disclosure: I was one of these.)

But we survived the night, and the day dawned clear. We joined up with John and Marianne (and several members of her family) and set up our equipment together. My camera having a big snazzy looking lens, and John’s telescope being snazzy in all respects, we attracted the occasional onlooker, most gratifyingly a gaggle of three seriously cute twenty-something girls who were dazzled enough by our gear, astronomy pedigrees, and our advanced conversational skills to hang around with us for the duration of the event.  (It has been decades since cute twenty-something girls thought I was cool. In fact, it may never have happened before. I can recommend it highly.)

The onset of eclipse arrived quite exactly on schedule at 9:06 AM. (Eclipses are notoriously punctual.) The moment when the moon’s shadow first impinges on the solar disk is called First Contact (no, not the Carl Sagan sci-fi novel or subsequent Jodie Foster movie). And here it is, taking a little nibble out of the upper right part of the sun:

Solar Eclipse 2017-062

Yes, those are clusters of sunspots, four near the middle of the disk, and two more at lower left, near “7:00”.

Thirty-five minutes later, the Dragon God had consumed those central sunspots and advanced significantly further:

Solar Eclipse 2017-065

Thirty-five minutes after that. things started to get really interesting. The sky darkened and Venus and the bright star Regulus (in the constellation of Leo) appeared. The lighting was like a deep twilight, and the air temperature, which had been dropping slowly, nosedived another 10 F (~5 C). An orange sunset glow began to envelop the entire horizon — a 360° sunset! — and the sun looked like this:

Solar Eclipse 2017-081

That reddish glow around the slim crescent of the sun is not a camera artifact: it is real, a part of the sun’s atmosphere, normally invisible to the eye, called the chromosphere. A few moments later it was more pronounced:

Solar Eclipse 2017-082

Notice also how the crescent is petering out into a sort of dotted line at the edges. That’s real too: you are peeking in between the mountains on the horizon of the moon!

And then: the moment of totality! Here is my awesome photo of it.

2017-08-23 21_43_12-

Gentle readers, I blew it. Because if there is one thing that anyone photographing a total eclipse must remember, it is to remove the solar filter from the camera lens during totality. Even in the late partial phase, the sun is very, very bright, and you continue to use a filter — like those goofy solar sunglasses for your eyes — until the last minute. Only during totality is the scene dim enough to safely behold with the naked eye — or camera lens.

And I forgot. I was so excited by the reality of the thing itself — the corona, the red splash of color in the chromosphere, the sharpness of the shadow disk — that I just plain forgot to remove the filter. I clicked the shutter a few times then looked down at my review screen to see the picture, and was instantly discombobulated to see that it was black. I spent about 30 seconds fiddling around with various settings in a desperate attempt to figure out what was wrong, never even noticing the obvious. So I gave it up.

And you know what? I’m disappointed but not crushed. The actual fact of the matter is that with rare exceptions everyone’s totality images, taken with decent equipment and preparation, look pretty much alike. And so mine would too. The important thing was seeing it, experiencing the chill and the sheer other-worldliness of it all. I am more distressed about having wasted a solid 30 seconds or more of a two-minute event than I am of having blown the shot. Those were precious seconds, but I’m happy with what I got.

Once totality passed — 2 minutes and 3 seconds at our location — it was though it had never happened. The sky brightened immediately, the desert temperatures returned with their dusty teeth, the horizon glow vanished… and a whole lot of cars sprinted for the exits.

We knew in advance that that would be a pointless endeavor, so we hunkered down in the car — sweating and roasting in the sun — until the traffic thinned a bit. Even so, it took us over three hours to get back to the B&B, where Deb and Kevin namaste’d us home, listened to our stories — they had watched it from a kayak in the middle of a lake, and more power to them — and encouraged us into the hot tub. Which, after visiting one of Bend’s countless legal marijuana dispensaries, we did.

(Weed dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks here, with cutesy names like Doctor Jolly’s, Oregrown, Cannacopia, etc. They sell the traditional dried plant, oils, and assorted edible forms such as mints and chocolate bars. And they are staffed by cheerful — really cheerful — twentysomethings who happily explain that this type makes you mellow, and this type makes you energetic, and this type does something else, and on and on. It’s a total hoot.)

And so our day, and principal motivation of this sojourn, ended. The next total solar eclipse visible in the continental US is nearly seven years from now, on April 8, 2024. Like this one, its swath will include a significant fraction of the populated area of the country, though on a path running northeast from Texas to Maine. And, health and circumstances even remotely allowing, you had better believe that we are going to be somewhere along that path.

 

 

 

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Who Are All These People, and What Are They Eating?

People who are not actually familiar with Hawaii — and this includes the large fraction of tourists who are focused entirely on their mai-tais — can easily overlook its complex and yeasty ethnic makeup. Hawaii’s demographics don’t look anything like the rest of the US; in fact, they don’t look much like anything anywhere. More than 20% of Hawaiians identify as mixed-race; taking that into account — because it makes the numbers add up to more than 100% — the breakdown of the largest groups is:

  • 58% Asian
  • 39% White
  • 23% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander
  • 7% Hispanic
  • 3% Black

That’s quite the mix (and I should add that the absence of blacks is quite noticeable as one walks down the street here in Honolulu).  Precisely because it is such a melange, the faces of the locals make for quite the panoply.

Honolulu-004 Honolulu-023 Honolulu-018 Honolulu-009

(I’m not sure why that first guy reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio, but somehow he does.)

OK, what does this mean for us in practice on our visit? It means that there’s all sorts of cool food, that’s what. (What, did you think this was going to be some kind of anthropological treatise?) We are here visiting our old friends Laura and Brian, and they wisely realized that yesterday, our first day here, was a happy confluence of two food-related events: a farmer’s market at local Kapiolani Community College, and — insert drum roll and Asian gong sound here — a Chinese New Year parade.

(Laura and Brian themselves are pretty good exemplars of Hawaii’s ethnic potpourri. She’s a Jewish girl from Massachusetts; he’s ethnic Japanese from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. They have a daughter in her 20’s, whose consequently stirred-up gene pool makes her beautiful in proper Darwinian fashion.)

So, food. For breakfast we worked our way through the farmer’s market, chowing down on everything in sight like a small group of well-behaved army ants, or perhaps a genteel Sherman’s March to the Sea, navigating through a mass of both locals and Japanese tourists, the later all in sun hats and moving in amoebic little groups as though chained at the ankles. As we ambled with feigned patience from stall to stall, our diet included the following, all locally made and in no particular order:

  • Assorted local fruit juice blends, e.g. passion-fruit/ginger and strawberry/blackberry
  • Grilled local gigantic shrimps on skewers. (You eat the whole thing, shell and all.)
  • Seared ahi tuna sliders with mushroom tempura sticks
  • Kimchee sausage on a stick
  • Assorted homemade popsicles including honeydew with ginger and dark chocolate with Chinese spices
  • Ice cream bananas, which is a type of creamy banana, not a type of ice cream
  • Kahlua pig
  • Dark chocolate plus Kona coffee-covered macadamia nuts
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Brian bites the big one.

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Alice, still hungry.

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One could persuasively argue that poi = taro hummus.

And this was breakfast, mind you.

Having eaten our fill — a sentiment that would immediately prove both naive and ironic — we headed home for some down time, inexplicably becoming peckish along the way and so stopping en route to pick up some poke (marinated, seasoned ahi sushi),  boiled peanuts (a Hawaiian local favorite), and chicharron, which sounds Hispanic and is: it’s pork rinds.

We variously napped and pigged out some more at home before driving downtown for the Chinese New Year parade. And of course, upon arriving there, the first thing we did was start eating again, kicking things off with some roast suckling pig from this guy.

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OK, so we just ate. What’s your point?

Honolulu’s Chinatown, like so many American Chinatowns, pretty clearly has its best days decades behind it and has a rather characteristic seedy feel that you will also experience in its counterparts in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and even — though it is vastly larger and somewhat less tatty — San Francisco. It all has something of a time-warp-y feel to it, with tattoo parlors and dusty arcane-looking herbal remedy stores, the ones with dried lizard skins in the windows.

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Good place to pick up some dried lizard for either your arthritis or your black arts.

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An 1890’s bawdy house that became the “Club Hubba Hubba” just after World War II. I don’t think the women are still there. God, I hope not.

But the important thing is, that we kept eating. Strolling through the crowded streets as the dragon puppeteers suited up for the parade, we continued to glut ourselves on mango ice cream, lobster chips, and almond cookies, all the while reminding ourselves that we had dinner reservations for later. This was roughly equivalent to reminding a cokehead sucking on a crack pipe that he has a job interview scheduled in three hours.

(Speaking of cokeheads, I feel compelled to relate a minor incident. As it happens my arms are covered at the moment with some painless but very nasty-looking bruises, souvenirs of a short hospital visit just before our departure during which I came under the ministrations of a technician who had, apparently, never inserted an IV or taken blood before. The side streets of the parade route had a number of stalls advertising local worthy organizations — Jaycees, local sports clubs, and the like — including a meth clinic. Despite my pleadings Alice rather stodgily forbade me from walking up to them, arms out with black-and-blue marks on full display, and asking for help. I suppose that in any marriage you need to have at least one responsible adult present at all times, but still.)

The parade itself was a raucous and colorful affair, full of dragons and martial arts displays and little old ladies carrying fans whilst sitting on festooned flatbed trucks, smiling and waving delicately to the crowd as they represented assorted charitable Chinese organizations that we of course had never heard of.

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There were drummers, a platoon of kids on BMX bikes, and of course beauty queens riding on top of convertibles: “Miss United States: Samoa/Guam/Hawaii/Mariana Islands”. “Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce” and her first four runners-up, the latter in a convoy of Mustangs whilst the winner rode in a Corvette, and all waving gamely with that odd rotary side-to-side waving technique perfected by Queen Elizabeth II. And game they had to be: how would you like to be the last of those girls, smiling at the crowd while sitting on a top of a car with a sign announcing that you were the fourth runner-up? “Hi, I’m Jessica! Those four girls in front were all prettier than me!”

Anyway, we had a wonderful time, and saw many dragons.

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And a couple of hours later, we of course went to our dinner reservation and had a big and wonderful meal.

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The Turbanator

We left the hotel at about 9:00 this morning en route to an alfalfa farm (yes, there is a reason for this), and our first sight as we crossed a low bridge was a group of Berber women doing laundry in the river at the foot of the hill on which our hotel is perched.

No starch, please.

This gave us pause because we had sent out our laundry last night and thus could not altogether rule out the possibility that our teeshirts were in there somewhere.

Anyway, the alfalfa farm. Today’s itinerary is called “A Day in the Life of Tineghir”, and that day includes not only people doing laundry but people — which is to say, women — doing stoop labor in the alfalfa fields as well. We first picked up our local guide, a manic Berber named Mokhtar who knew the local ropes, had a 1000-watt personality, and whose clothing alone was worth the trip.

Mokhtar the Enthusiastic

You can see the fields — and three very out of focus women — behind him. Most local women, and a large fraction of local men, are adamant about not having their picture taken, at least not of their face, so this is about the best I can do. The most common exceptions are beggars, whom one can pay to allow a photo, and the families where we have our hosted visits.

This is backbreaking labor, scything the alfalfa at ground level with a small curved blade about a foot long, and laying out the sheaves for the men to pick up and load onto waiting donkeys. This being an organized trip, Mokhtar inevitably wrapped a couple of the women in our group in shawls, gave them a blade one at a time, and had them cut a few stalks while the rest of us took pictures and the actual working women no doubt muttered imprecations under their breath. Then Mokhtar drafted some of our men to pick up the bundles of cut alfalfa and carry them to a nearby donkey. I wonder if perhaps we could put together a tour group of Berbers, bring them to the US, and have them take pictures of each other pretending to be consultants or programming a computer.

Our next stop was a very old mosque and school that had fallen into disrepair and was now being rebuilt. Part of the reason it needed rebuilding was its location on a steep hillside, where erosion had pretty much eliminated the possibility of having any of the building columns remaining exactly vertical. But the place had a pleasantly ancient and spooky air about it, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. You can get the idea from these two shots.

It turned out, to our surprise and delight, that Mokhtar is a muezzin, the guy who chants the call to prayer from the top of a mosque five times a day. In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve heard it dozens of times, of course, but usually at a distance and always in a cacophony of echoing calls from all the nearby mosques at once, competing as well with day-to-day noise from the street. But now we were by ourselves well away from any distracting sounds, and Mokhtar wowed us by chanting the call in the very room we were in.

He puts his all into it, drawing deep breaths, cupping his hands around his mouth, and closing his eyes to concentrate. It is far less jarring to hear it this way than in all the times we’ve heard it thus far. It seems to me almost a shame that it is almost always heard that way, because in these more intimate conditions its musicality emerged, and it was haunting and strangely beautiful.

Our religious duties fulfilled, it was time to go shopping for dinner. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) is all about participation, so when I say that we went shopping, I mean that we were driven to an open air market and divided into three groups of five or six people each, each group given a shopping list and a 100 dirham note (about $10 US), and told to be back in 20 minutes with the goods. Bargaining would be necessary. Steve, Thumper, and we were the fruit group, assigned to buy 4 kilos (8.8 lbs) of apples and bananas and 3 kilos of oranges. Off we went.

Thumper brings home the bacon, or rather apples.

We thought the nearest fruit stand looked too touristy so we found another and were immediately distracted by pomegranates. We bought three big ones for the low, low prices of 7 dirham (70 cents US) because we could; at that price bargaining seemed superfluous and we still had 93 dirham left. So we looked first at the apples and decided that the quality was low, and maybe we were better off at the first fruit stand after all. We returned to it and, satisfied with the quality of the goods, started loading up plastic tubs with the required amount of each fruit. The stall had two scales, a modern electronic one and an old fashioned mechanical one with counterweights. We put items in and out of the basket till we had the desired weight of each of the the three fruits, and the tab came to 142 dirham.

Hmmm. We only had 93 out of our original hundred, and we didn’t want to front any of our own cash unless absolutely necessary. So we handed the vendor the 93 and said, in English and French, that that’s all we have. He thought for a second, handed us back the three odd dirham, and said (in English), “Twenty.” I fished a 20 out of my wallet and gave it to him, and the deal was done: 90 + 20 = 110 dirham ($11 US), about 20% less than the original price. We had fruit. We had bargained successfully. (I would also like to note that we paid $11 US for over 24 lbs of fruit, which seems like an awfully good deal in general.)

Our next stop was a school visit, a common feature of many OAT tours. (OAT is affiliated with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a number of educational and cultural institutions at their tour destinations; a small part of our OAT tour cost goes to them.) Our school of interest was a Berber boarding school of sorts; I say “of sorts” because it is not a school per se, rather it provides boarding and study facilities for poor students who are brought there to attend nearby public schools. It does have a study area and a very small library, seen here. Needless to say, they accept donations of just about anything. (While on our fruit quest earlier, we had bought some pens and notebooks from another market vendor to leave behind at the school.)

The facility has dorms that support 140 boys from 7th through 12th grades, and there is a sister facility down the street that houses 104 girls; the girls’ school is only 5 years old. Admission is selective and takes into account primary school achievement, poverty levels, and other factors. The facilities are basic, clean, and spare: the sleeping quarters are basically large cubicals with lockers, each area holding two two-person bunk beds. There was a soccer field and a basketball court; a dining area, and a grand total of three computers. The principal walked us through as he talked about their history, how they operate, and what they hope to accomplish. One interesting feature is their association with a nearby vocational school; students who can’t cut it in regular school are allowed to continue to board there while attending the vo-tech school. It seems like a very good model for bringing education to a large socioeconomic segment that would otherwise remain illiterate and unemployable.

Time for another home-hosted lunch, this time with a barely-middle-class Berber family whose income seemed to come both from a small garden farm and from these visits themselves; they host about four a week, for which OAT of course pays them.

Our host was Achmad, who was definitely a wild and crazy guy of about 40. He lives with his brother, two sisters (both well past marrying age, for reasons unknown), and his 80 year old father. They were warm and welcoming, Achmad doing most of the talking; his brother spoke a little English and his sisters and father less. (French worked, though, and we used it a fair amount.) Our gift to them, as we have done before, was some NASA paraphernalia that went over very well, as you can see from Achmad’s enthusiasm:

“To the moon, Achmad!”

Lunch was excellent, a lamb tagine preceded by a first course that was completely new to us: angel hair pasta topped with cinnamon and sugar. Yeah, I know it sounds weird but it was really good: try it! It has the additional virtue of allowing you to pretend that you’re not eating dessert before dinner.

Achmad went around the table asking where we were from, whether we had children, and what religion we were. He was excited to hear that I am Jewish, and ran to get an old coin that he had found in the mountains to see if I could identify it. Here it is:

 

It’s about the size of a US dime and is featureless on the back. I have no idea what it is. Let me know if you do. (For all I know it’s an old rabbinical shirt button.)

The fun began after lunch: it was Dress Up Time. (One gets the sense that the family has done this before, which I expect they have about 100 times. Still, they seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us in this way.) Achmad got the ball rolling with his Ultra Macho Triple Decker Turban:

Now THAT’S a turban.

And it was not long before everyone got into the act, including me

Without question, my new Facebook profile picture

Notice also that I am wearing a black robe with a gold banded collar. That is because at Achmad’s behest everyone went Full Berber:

No tourists here, nosirree. But at least I know what to wear to my next business meeting.

That’s Alice on my left, Steve and Thumper on my right, and two of our other travel mates, Dave and Patricia. Dave got shorted in the turban department because everyone agreed that the white skullcap looked exactly right on him.

And then the music started: Achmad on a recorder-like pipe, sister #1 clinking a jar with a spoon, remaining siblings providing percussion on the tabletop and a plastic bread bowl. It was a Berber Shop Quartet, plus Dad in the background clapping his hands. There was dancing. It was surreal. It was also a total hoot, and I have it on video to prove it.

“No, dammit, you’re coming in late on the down beat. Now take it from the top.”

We get more Berber Immersion tonight, as we are having dinner at a Berber camp using the food that we bought earlier today. I’ll report on that in my next posting. (Postscript: never mind. The Berber “camp” turned out to be a hotel with a Berber-style tent next to it. But the meal was very good — we bought the fruit for dessert! — and the music, a three piece percussion band with castanets and drums, was excellent.)

We leave Tinighir for tomorrow for our next destination, the town of Ouarzazate. We will be having a discussion session with an imam there. Ouarzazate is also the home of Morocco’s native TV and film industry, and is thus known as — I swear this is true — “Mollywood”. I have no idea what kind of stuff they produce, but I can imagine some locally themed programming that might appeal: classic movies like The Sound of Muezzins, racy fare like Fifty Shades of Ochre, and TV series like How I Met Your Mullah and the crime drama CSI: Middle of Nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fez Up! (or, Cranking Up the Volubilis)

We are now heading inland, and as we move further from the coast the weather gets noticeably hotter and drier over a surprisingly short distance. We are approaching the Atlas Mountains; whereas the Rif mountains delineate the wild and wooly northernmost part of the country (centered, more or less, between Tetuan, Casablanca, and Chefchaouen), the Atlas range sets off the Saharan south. So as we head east and south and approach the Atlas (which we will not cross until after we leave Fez), the countryside gets hilly as well as dry.

Before the terrain dries out completely we pass through the town of Khemisset, which appears to thrive, and is in the vicinity of lots of fruit farms. And indeed, just outside of town there is a row of curbside vendors about a quarter miles long, all selling melons and squash…definitely the largest agglomeration of melons in one place I’ve ever seen. A lot of pedestrians and passing cars stop to fill up, including one determined woman in a donkey cart who loads up on day-old melons to feed her animal, then does an intrepid U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic to head back from whence she came.

The donkey gets an impressive 34 miles per melon

It doesn’t take long after we leave Khemisset for the landscape to go more or less to hell, an endless expanse of brown hills punctuated by the occasional olive grove. It is like some kind of prelude to the Sahara, but this seems not to stop the farmers, who till what to our citified eyes looks like an endless expanse of burnt dirt. Here is the view from our bus.

Definitely not Kansas

There is no irrigation and so not much of anything will grow until the rains come in the winter. Still, there’s enough plant activity to sustain a sparse local economy and, apparently, some very determined animals: we can see the occasional small flock of sheep and random cattle standing stolidly in an endless expanse of scorched earth, grazing on the rare blades of grass that only they can see. And the olive trees tough it out: that’s the greenery in the photo.

We continue through this unpromising terrain for hours until we reach Meknes, the sixth largest city in Morocco with a population of about 750,000. Its claim to fame is having been the actual capital for a short time around 1700, under the reign of Alpha Sunuvabitch Moulay Ismail. Old Moulay’s nickname was “The Bloodthirsty”, which is probably a lousy nickname for your Match.com account, but it seemed to suit him. He was a big fan of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and so decreed that his imperial palace and the town’s architecture be modeled after Versailles. It is doubtful that the admiration was reciprocal insofar as, unlike with Moulay Ismail, there are no reports of Louis XIV festooning the walls of Versailles with the heads of 10,000 decapitated enemies.

It is certainly true that Meknes has rather French looking broad avenues, and its architecture does have a hybrid look, Islamic with some French influence but certainly a lot more of the former. (It does not have nearly the ornate columns or cornices that I would think of as French.) Our first stop was a market square across from the royal palace (this country certainly has a plethora of Royal palaces, doesn’t it?), where the area’s reputation for olive growing was quickly confirmed. The outdoor portion of the market was a successful-looking concern of pottery vendors, like this…

 …but the indoor part, in addition to the butchers, sweets, and spice vendors, was Olive Territory in a big way, with many stalls resembling this one:

My dirty little secret: I don’t actually like olives.

Meknes’ two biggest attractions are an enormous granary and a stable that could hold 12,000 horses, both from Moulay Ismail’s reign. The former is a network of high-ceilinged rooms, otherwise empty as you would expect for a storage area; the former has lost its roof and is a series of parallel rows of archways that, with some imagination, one could see as a stables. And here they are:

Granary


Stables

It is said that Moulay Ismail learned of a very talented architect who was languishing in one of his prisoners, and had the architect brought before him. He asked him whether he (the architect) was capable of designing a stable even greater than the 12,000 horse one that Ismail already had. The architect — who was indeed very skilled — said that he could. So Ismail…

POP QUIZ TIME!  WHAT DID MOULAY ISMAIL DO TO THE ARCHITECT?

(a) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and sent him back to prison.

(b) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and freed him so the architect could design a new and bigger stable.

(c) Said, “And who the hell do you think is going to hire you to do that?” and had the architect executed.

The answer is of course (c). The moral of the story is that a guy who decorates his city walls with 10,000 heads is pretty tough to impress, and if he asks you something you should assume that it’s a loaded question.

You know who else was tough to impress? The Romans, that’s who. They were here, of course, and left an impressive set of ruins in the town of Volubilis, a little bit north of Meknes. They date from about the first century AD, an impressive 100-acre site that includes a triumphal arch, a large temple colonnade, and the remains of some very luxurious houses where you can even see what’s left of some swimming pools and hot tubs. There are a number of surprisingly intact floor mosaics (there good state surprising in part because they are unprotected and completely exposed to the elements); the tiles have remarkably retained much of their original color because they are natural stone, not dyed. Here’s the temple colonnade (the bricks are restorations):

This was really kind of the boondocks of the Roman Empire, the endpoint of the Appian Way. (The other end of the Appian Way is Hadrian’s Wall in England. The Roman Empire was big.) As the Roman Empire began to totter and fragment around the 4th century AD, Volubilis did not hold up; it was overrun by one or another barbarian tribe in 285 AD and the Romans never returned.

We rolled into Fez at about 5 PM or so and before heading to our riad we had a delightful little side visit to Momo’s apartment, where we met his wife, 8 year old nephew, and 6 year old niece. His wife Amal was welcoming and gracious and prepared an astounding array of sweet snacks for us, including a homemade cake. Here they are:

Mohammed, Amal, and their niece and nephew

 
The spread that Amal prepared was spectacular: a variety of pastries and a world class cake. Gotta tell ya, whatever else we take away from this trip, the Moroccans take their pastries seriously and are really good at making them. We were very impressed by the visit.

Our riad is a sight to behold, an old family dwelling dating to the 16th century that has been owned by the current family since about 1948… the handover being in that year, I suspect, because the previous owners were a Jewish family (this much we know to be true) who I am guessing hightailed it to Israel at the same time as all the other Moroccan Jews. In any case, the current family converted it to an inn several years ago, and we get to enjoy it now. 

Tomorrow: city tour of Fez, and lunch in the souk!

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Down the Rabat Hole

This will be a short post for the simple yet boring reason that not a whole lot happened today, it having been mostly a travel day on the van to get us from Tangier to Rabat. It’s about a 3 1/2 drive through not especially interesting countryside, mostly big industrial-sized farms that are far more similar to their American counterparts than to the small family farms that we saw in the Rif mountains. The countryside is mostly pretty dry, as you might expect, but the farms are irrigated. The most common crop that we saw was strawberries, with okra a distant second. Lots and lots of strawberries, protected from the sun under acres of plastic sheets… “strawberry fields forever”, one might say, if one was desperate to insert some lame humor into an otherwise pedestrian blog post.

We arrived in Rabat around lunchtime and did a quick spin around the city in the van to get a feel for it. It is a somewhat schizophrenic place: very modern looking on the one hand, with a gleaming light rail system that would be the envy of any American city, yet at the same time exuding the Moorish ambience of the royal palace and the very large mosque next door. And overlooking the city and its river (called the Bou Regreg), the largest casbah we have seen, a huge medieval fortress housing a walled town with its souk and medina, and an ancient royal garden. This casbah is a classic Moorish fortress, with tall onion-shaped arches under classic medieval parapets like a marching row of squared-off teeth.

Momo (our tour lead Mohammed) brought us all to lunch at a bustling trattoria adjacent to Rabat’s central rail station. It was a very American kind of place, serving mostly burgers, pizza, and, um, shawarma (which if this were Greece you would call gyro). It all had a very big-city feel to it and could have been any European city except for the proliferation of women in hijabs. But far from all of them: being the capital (and having a population of 2 million), Rabat is pretty cosmopolitan. There we a larger percentage of Wester-dressed women her than any other place we’ve seen, and this included the co-owner of the restaurant, an attractive and thoroughly Western 30-ish woman who spoke nearly perfect English and came over to chat with us for a while. (Her father is the other co-owner.)

We had a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so Steve and Thumper and we decided to do some exploring on our own. We had heard that the casbah gardens, called the Andalusian Gardens in the guidebooks, were worthwhile, so despite the likelihood that we will be visiting them tomorrow we jumped in a cab and instructed the driver in French to take us there. That did not turn out as well as we hoped. Not because our French was inadequate — we can get by in that department — but because, unbeknownst to us and the guidebooks notwithstanding, the locals do not refer to them as the Andalusian Gardens but rather the Oudaya Gardens, Oudaya being the name of the casbah. The only reason we got there at all was that Alice showed the driver a map indicating our destination, at which point the light bulb went on and he charged forward. The ride took about 10 minutes and cost $1.50. I gave him two bucks in dirhams and felt like a big spender.

The gardens were pleasant if unspectacular, more enjoyable for the setting beneath the castle walls and the locals strolling about that for the flora. The was a group of teenagers playing music on a guitar and flute; pairs of women in hijabs taking selfies with their phones; families with children; lovers sitting on a ledge holding hands. It was cool in the shade and fragrant with roses, an unselfconscious little idyll behind high walls.

An archway at one corner of the garden led to an outdoor tea salon on a terrace overlooking the river, where for two bucks apiece we each had a glass of achingly sweet and satisfying mint tea and a plate of genuinely spectacular almond cookies. The river view itself is austere; it is broad and shallow with surprisingly little boat traffic, and long low rows of boxy apartment blocks on the far shore. One boat in particular caught our eye: a large dark brown wooden dhow, surprisingly resembling Captain Hook’s ship from Peter Pan, lay moored at the shore. We had been told that we would be having dinner aboard a boat tonight, and wondered if that was it. (Spoiler alert: it was.)

Leaving the terrace, we ambled through the medina for a half hour or so, a stroll that include Alice getting waylaid by an insistent lady selling henna tattoos. Alice plunked for one — the lady wanted five bucks, Alice offered two, deal accepted — and sported a nice henna curlicue on her arm that listed all of about a half hour before washing off.

Back at the hotel we finally met the rest of our group, a gregarious crowd of folks who mostly hail from New Orleans and mostly already know each other. They seem like a real good group that will fit in nicely with our current eight, and I expect we’ll enjoy our time with them. So far I’ve identified among them a nurse, an architect, a caterer, a retail store and coffee shop owner, and a rheumatologist. They’re all very good-humored and interesting to talk to; over dinner the rheumatologist was telling me about some volunteer work that he did in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Dinner on the boat was surprisingly good and the setting surprisingly elegant considering that it looked from the outside like some kind of tourist trap. (Our tour operator, OAT, does their homework in this regard.) Tomorrow we’ll have a city tour that I expect will bring us back to Oudaya. But that’s fine with us. I’ll post some photos of the day in my next entry.

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Patty Cake, Patty Cake

OK, OK, I might as well get this out of the way first and vaporize my Sophisticated Traveler credentials once and for all. Remember what I said about djellabas and sombreros being a thing? Here are Alice and me in an act of public self-humiliation:

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here. Move on now.

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here.

We will not speak of this again.  Moving right along….

You probably think of Morocco as an Arab country. You have a lot of company if you do, including the government of Morocco itself. But in fact the country is 70% Berber, a very loosely-defined and heterogeneous ethnic group that is not Arab and in fact views the Arabs as invaders…which they were, in about the 8th century. The Berbers came from just about everywhere in the hemisphere; some resemble dark sub-Saharan Africans, others lighter-skinned Europeans. There are even a smattering of Jews among them. (Though very few: practically all of the country’s 300,000 Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948, and only about 3,000 remain. There are too few of them to even bother persecuting, unlike the Shia Muslims, which are somewhat second class citizens in this Sunni country.)

And by the way, do not call Berbers Berbers: their name for themselves is the Amazigh, or “free people”. The name “Berber”, in fact, is of unclear origin; one theory is that it is related to the word “barbarian”. They are not too crazy about this theory, as you might imagine.

We are in Chefchaouen right now, in the Rif mountains in the northern part of the country. This part of Morocco was long considered something of a backwater; King Hassan II, who ruled for about 50 years until his death in 1999, was very “south-centric” and an Islamic traditionalist. (The giant mosque in Casablanca whose pictures I posted yesterday is named after him. It holds 100,000 worshipers — that is not a typo — and has a 4000 car underground parking garage. I do not know if they validate.) His son and successor, Mohammed VI, as rather more westernized and very much the reformer. Politically, this northern part of the country now gets more attention; religiously, a wide variety of traditional Islamic strictures have been loosened, the mosques are turning out a cadre of more moderate imams, and women in particular have benefited from more educational opportunities and more balanced marriage and divorce laws. More on this topic later.

Chefchaouen (hard to get all those vowels in the right order) is a beautiful hillside town, the buildings variously blue or whitewashed, making it rather Greek in appearance, as you can see here:

chef-08

We are staying in a beautiful restored traditional guest house called a riad. The floors are all tile, the rooms ringing a 3-story mezzanine onto a central skylit atrium. In the middle of the floor at the bottom, where the front desk is, overstuffed easy chairs ring a low copper and tile fountain. The front door opens onto the souk, the bubbly warren-like marketplace full of strolling tourists and insistent vendors. Leather, woodwork, clothing, and tchochkes are the order of the day, and the streets are all blue. We took an early morning stroll to see relatively people-free streets like these:

chef-03 chef-02 chef-01

Here are a few locals of varying ages:

chef-07 chef-06

The souk takes on an otherwordly air at night, the street lights mixing with the blue walls, the vendors importuning the strollers through the maze of alleys, and the calls to prayer from the muezzin echoing from the minarets. Here are some night scenes (I may post more tomorrow):

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That last photo is worshipers exiting a mosque after evening prayers. This particular mosque has some political significance, as it is in the vanguard of training and dispatching moderate imams to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. (The term “fundamentalism” is somewhat misleading insofar as even most conservative Muslims consider the jihadists’ doctrines to be an extreme corruption of actual fundamental Islamic principles.)

After our morning stroll, we boarded our van and drove about a half hour into the mountainous countryside to have our first home-hosted meal. Our hosts were Mohammed (not the same Mohammad as our tour lead) and his sister Fatima; his wife was laid up in bed with a difficult pregnancy. They are a mixed Berber/Arab couple who operate a small farm/guesthouse, and upon our arrival put the women in our group to work helping Fatima prepare the meal. This included making the flatbread from scratch, followed by the couscous. This was all dutifully overseen by the men, who according to tradition and deeply-ingrained social custom did, well, nothing. One of our guys was selected to pour the tea, which is about the extent of the male role at mealtime and, indeed, just about any time. Meanwhile, the women were doing this: chef-10 chef-09 chef-12

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   Alice keeps the home fires burning.

The bread-making involved a lot of patting and rolling and kneading and sifting and such (hence today’s title). In other words, we all enjoyed the benefits of rampant gender inequality. But the meal was delicious. In fact, here is a picture of one of the courses a vegetarian couscous:

We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

 We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

It is traditional to bring a small gift to the host on such a house visit. I brought along some NASA paraphernalia for this purpose: a NASA logo sew-on patch and a refrigerator magnet. Mohammad was very excited by this, and we had a pantomime conversation (he speaking no English) in which he made launching sounds and motions and was apparently asking me if I worked with rockets. I said yes. It later developed that he was actually asking me whether I was an astronaut. It was with great reluctance that I fessed up. But I still got major props:

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Following the meal, Mohammed walked us around the property, down the hill to his neighbor’s scrawny marijuana patch. No, it is not legal here. No, he did not offer any to us, not even for the NASA patch.

We headed back to the riad for an hour or two break, then convened for an hour discussion with a local activist named Fatima (no, not the one from the farm), who works for an organization that is trying to modernize the situation of women in Morocco. Said situation being pretty bad at present, though not nearly so bad as in much of the Muslim world. There is in particular an enormous divide between urban and rural women (the population is about evenly split between cities and countryside): the latter are mostly uneducated, marry very young, and as I already indicated do pretty much everything to maintain the home regardless of whether her husband has a job (which a large fraction do not). The situation is changing, particularly since 2003 with the introduction of radically liberalized family laws. Women can now request a divorce (formerly solely a husband’s privilege), can require a prenup with a 50-50 property split, can demand alimony, and can have their husbands prosecuted for domestic violence. You will be unsurprised to hear that the divorce rate in Morocco has skyrocketed in the past 12 years. Fatima’s organization’s role in this liberalization process is promoting women’s education, particularly in the rural areas where at present a large fraction never go to school.

It was an interesting and animated discussion, attended by everyone in the group except one of the husbands, whom I suspect may be sleeping outdoors tonight.

We ended the day with a wonderful rooftop dinner, just Steve and Thumper and us, at a nearby restaurant recommended by our tour lead. It had the unfortunately schlocky name of “Alladin’s Magic Lamp”. But the food was excellent and we enjoyed it while overlooking the main town square during sunset, watching the nighttime town come to life and, once again, hearing the muezzins echoing from the minarets in every direction.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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