Posts Tagged With: fish

The Salton Sea: Only the Weird Survive

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
                                                             — Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Driving through the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona is more than a little hallucinatory on its own, even without a pharmaceutical assist. The Chocolate Mountains gaze invitingly across the Salton Sea, but the landscape between you and them is anything but. It’s a sere, unwelcoming rockscape, a coarse desert of scrub brush and stunted palms, not as homicidally hostile as Death Valley or the Sahara but rather more like an unwelcoming failed xerogarden. And despite the distant mountains, the land through which we drive is as flat as the surface of the alkaline water itself, so unvarying that even on a cool day the air shimmers, mirage-like, above the road surface ahead.

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Our destination was the Salton Sea, a major geographical oddity insofar as it is the product of a mistake. In 1905 engineers from the California Development Company dug some irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the nearby farming valley. The canals silted up, so in their wisdom the engineers decided that they could essentially flush them out by breaking through the banks of the Colorado itself. Bad move. The torrent from the Colorado overwhelmed and overflowed the canals, flowing unchecked into the nearby Salton Basin for two years, filling up a previously dry ancient lake bed and creating a whole new sizable body of water. The newly extant Salton Sea — which is actually a lake — is about 15 x 25 miles long (24 x 56 km) and averages about 31′ (9.5m) deep. That’s a 2.2 trillion gallon mistake if you’re keeping score. (Or 8.5 trillion liters if you’re keeping score outside the USA.)

For a while this looked like not too bad an outcome. Birds moved in, the lake was stocked with fish, and for decades fishing and boating became popular activities there.

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Thing is, when Mother Nature creates a lake she generally supplies a continuous source of inflow as well as some kind of exit port, generally in the form of streams or rivers, to keep things all fresh and clean. Absent any of those, your shiny new body of water just sort of sits there, collecting runoff from the land and otherwise evaporating. In other words, it is not so much a lake as a gargantuan stagnant puddle.

Which is exactly what the Salton Sea is. Lacking any inflowing rivers, the only source of water is salt-rich, phosphate-rich runoff, and the only way that water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Consequently the lake becomes increasingly salty and toxic. Today, the Salton is about 25% saltier than the ocean and a rich source of heavy-metal goodness like arsenic. Adding to the fun, the desert winds kick up the toxin-laden dust on the shoreline and spread it around for all to enjoy: the surrounding Imperial County has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state of California.

So in other words, despite those two pleasing photos in the above paragraphs, you do not want to plan a camping trip here. For one thing, it stinks. Literally. The air is rank with dead fish, and the shore is lined with them, mummified in the desert sun and so numerous that they crunch as you walk around. So as a counterpoint to the soothing landscapes that I gave you above, here’s what much of the beach looks like.

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And here is Steve once again, experimenting with found art and asking the eternal question, “Do these earrings make my head smell bad?”

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(Answer: no, not by the time they get to that stage. So wait till Thumper sees her next birthday present!)

But go back up to the fish photo for a second and look at the ground around the skeleton. Interestingly, it’s not sand, but rather a vast collection of billions of delicate fish bones and barnacles, each a few millimeters in size. Here’s a close-up.

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Upon close inspection it is ironically beautiful, considering that the whole place is basically a poisonous witch’s brew. All of which leads to the obvious questions, “Does anyone live here and, if so, why?” And the answers are (1) yes, and (2) because they don’t fit in anywhere else.

Case in point is the waterfront town — such as it is — of Bombay Beach. I am not quite sure how to describe Bombay Beach. In fact, I am not quite sure how to describe any of the human settlements in the vicinity of the Salton Sea, because they all reside in some alternate universe that melds the shantytowns of South Africa, a trailer park designed by Salvador Dali, and Mad Max’s world.

As I reread that last sentence I am pretty satisfied with the description, with the exception of the word “park”, which implies that — somewhere — there is at least a measurable plot of green space to be found. There is not. Bombay Beach is all dirt and rocks and corrugated metal, broken-down trailers and RVs and the occasional land-bound boat whose hull hasn’t been wet in years and never will be again.

But there is nonetheless an ineluctable cheeriness to what objectively resembles a collective of post-nuclear-war survivors. Because practically every structure has been transformed to some kind of  found-art installation. Rusty bicycle wheels spin on the end of car springs; Christmas lights festoon sheets of corrugated aluminum with odd nongeometric shapes cut into them; stuffed animals are duct-taped to arrays of old car antennas.  It’s beyond weird, but curiously whimsical given the harsh surroundings. And even though situated 50 miles into the desert away from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach has embraced Mid-Century Modernism, in the form of a nearly full-sized parody of a 1960’s drive-in movie theater populated by an impossible collection of derelict cars: Studebakers, AMC Pacers, and God knows what else.

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Steve returns to his youth.

A little ways down the coast from Bombay Beach brings us no respite from the oddness but rather eternal redemption instead, in the form of the gaily-colored and transcendentally earnest monument to brightly-colored religion that is Salvation Mountain.

Salton Sea 2018-061 Salvation Mountain is the multi-hued brainchild of one Leonard Knight, born in 1931 and metaphorically blinded by the spiritual light in 1967. In that year, while working in Vermont, Leonard was suddenly struck by the revelation that religion was way too complicated and could be boiled down to a single sentence: “Accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved.” This 11-word sentence represented a substantial 99.9986% savings over the official 783,137 word count of the King James Bible, but the staid New England clergy were unimpressed by his eschatalogical efficiency. So Leonard decided to spread the word on his own by building his own gigantic hot air balloon, which failed to get off the ground.

Leonard relocated to the Southwest, where he tried to build yet another hot air balloon, which also remained stubbornly earthbound. In 1984 he fetched up on the banks of the Salton Sea and decided to paint a hillside instead. This saved a lot of time on the road as an itinerant preacher, not to mention gas and tolls, although the latter savings are substantially offset by the coast of 100,000 gallons of latex paint.

You can walk around — and up — Salvation Mountain, which is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the main mountain, there is also a hogan-like adobe structure — another riot of primary colors — where you can walk through precariously-supported tunnels plastered with variations on the same inspirational message and biblical quotes. The tunnel through the hogan looks like the interior of the guy’s brain in the movie “Fantastic Voyage“:

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…although as I look at the photo now, it also reminds me of a brightly colored, slightly less ominous version of the creepy parallel world (the Upside Down) in the TV series “Stranger Things“.

Several derelict vehicles dot the grounds at Salvation Mountain: a couple of trucks, a motorcycle, and even a front-loader. The trucks in particular have a certain 1930’s Dust Bowl look about them, which I tried to capture in this photo.

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The John Steinbeck “Grapes of Wrath” model

The vehicles all have that same design scheme, i.e., they look like they were driven by a crew of drunken Okies through the wall of a paint factory, and then caromed, Wile E. Coyote-style, into an evangelical revival tent meeting.  I can imagine the scene: horn honking frantically — AH-OO-GAH! — the out-of-control vehicle, shedding paint cans and splattering latex blobs everywhere, tears through the canvas wall of the revival tent! The crowd screams HOLY JESUS and scatters as the truck careens across five rows of folding chairs, skidding 90 degrees and sending airborne a little old lady who, crippled by arthritis, had only one minute earlier stood up from her wheelchair for the first time in 17 years after a laying on of hands by the preacher! The truck crashes to a stop at the altar, and the enraged crowd charges the vehicle, deciding spontaneously en masse to use it as a billboard of their faith and smearing the paint with their hands into words of holy praise! Then they drag out the Okies and tar and feather them.

It was definitely inspirational. We donated a dollar.

Which is why our next stop was East Jesus. Well, technically, East Jesus is part of Slab City, another outpost of creative desolation very similar to Bombay Beach. (It gets its name from the concrete slabs which once supported snowbirds’ vacation homes but which are now occupied by rusting mobile homes, tents, and other semipermanent residences.) But whereas Bombay Beach acquires its actuarial risk factors by being situated on the shore of the Salton Sea itself, Slab City is a few hundred yards inland, adjacent to a US Army artillery range. It’s very easy to find the official town limit: it’s the barbed wire fence that says “Do Not Enter. Unexploded Ordinance.” I am not making this up.

Apparently the barbed wire and expanse of corrugated aluminum was insufficiently unsettling to the local artistic community, which as a result created the outdoor art installation/museum/portal to Hell dubbed East Jesus. Here is the entrance:

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…and here are some cheery scenes from around the grounds:

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Take a close look at the doorway of the collapsed house in the middle photo. There is a pair of legs wearing striped red and yellow stockings sticking out of the doorway, with a red shoe on one foot. Seems familiar. Where have we seen that before… striped stockings and a red shoe sticking out from under a collapsed house? Holy moly! Dorothy’s house has apparently migrated from Oz to East Jesus!

It’s that kind of place, weirdly fascinating but best avoided if you’ve recently been on the fence about committing suicide. Other objets d’art scattered around the grounds include a crashed Cessna, protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle, and a toilet whose seat is ringed by 6″ glass shards, all pointing straight up. Ouch. We wandered around until we had had our fill of good-natured existential angst, then moved on.

Our last stop of the day was a more natural phenomenon: boiling mud. California is tectonically active, as you know from endless dire warnings about its eventual doom by earthquake. There is a geothermal power plant near the shore of the lake, and on its property is a mini-Yellowstone, a small field of boiling mud pots perhaps 100 meters off the road. They look like anthills or African termite mounds from a distance, blobby grayish cones sticking up out of a sparse brown field.

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Some look like mini-volcanos, perhaps two meters high, with small craters at the top where you can peer into the pool of bursting grey mud bubbles going bloop – bloop – bloop, like this:

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You can stick your hand into it. It’s a little sticky (being mud) and is about as warm as a hot shower. It’s not unpleasant, especially if you’re into spa days.

Some of the mud flows are curiously artistic. Squint at this one (below): Steve observed that it looks like any number of Renaissance Madonna-and-child paintings.

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I have deemed the photo “Mudonna”. And that was our day at the Salton Sea.

We left Palm Springs the next morning and arrowed across the desert at 80 mph (140 kph), a straight shot of 260 miles (420 km) to Phoenix, and thence to Scottsdale directly to the east of it. We’re staying with our old friends Larry and Jean for a few days before heading home for real next Tuesday. We’ve been away for nearly six weeks… time to have some down time with the grandkids!

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Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Something Fishy This Way Swims

Not much to report today other than an afternoon snorkeling session at Kahalu’u Beach Park here on the Big Island, a few miles south of downtown Kailua and less than a mile from our house. But first a word about beaches…

Say the words “Hawaiian beach” to someone and their immediate mental image is in all likelihood a vast expanse of white sand, lined with palm trees. And it is true that there are a few beaches like that in the islands, most notably Waikiki in Honolulu, though at that particular locale there are probably as many hotels as palm trees. There’s one like that on the Big Island as well, called Hapuna, located a good half hour north of Kona. But remember that these islands are volcanic, which means that most of the beaches are made of coarse black sand, usually punctuated with some ropy hardened pahoehoe lava. (The palm tree part of the mental picture is still accurate, though.) None of this means that you can’t lay out a blanket and pick up a nice case of skin cancer as well as on any white sand beach, but at least now you have the right picture in your head.

Kahalu’u Beach Park is a typical black sand beach in this regard, especially well suited for a beach outing because it fronts on shallow Kahalu’u Bay, protected from the not-always-pacific Pacific by a coral reef a few hundred yards offshore. The bay is in most places less than 7′ (2.2 m) deep and studded with coral outcroppings, making it an excellent snorkeling venue. Its only difficulty is occasional strong currents as the tide goes in and out. But from where we stay, it’s hard to beat both for convenience and for the variety of sea life it supports (notably a colony of green sea turtles, known in Hawaiian as honu). So here are some photos from today’s outing:

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Honu. Some of the turtles in Kahaluu have tracking devices on their backs, courtesy of NOAA researchers

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Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)

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Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)

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Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)

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Left: Threadfin Butterflyfish (Kikakapu). Right: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau)

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Left: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau). Right: Parrotfish (Uhu)

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A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)

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Clown Wrasse (Can’t find the Hawaiian name!)

There are many other colorful species that live in the bay, notably a healthy number of reef triggerfish. The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii and sports one of the best native names of any creature anywhere, ever: humuhumunukunukuapua’a. I once got a discount on a tee shirt by pronouncing this correctly.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Maximum Fish, and a Mad Scramble

A lot of images spring to mind when you hear the word “Japan”, and for Alice and me one of those words is “sushi.” And like the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish, and he will eat a lot of sushi.” Something like that. But anyway, as you doubtless know fish is a very big deal in Japan, and consequently one of the major go-to sites in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is where it all happens: the tuna and other catch brought in during the predawn hours of every morning and auctioned off to the wholesalers. It is possible to see the tuna auction itself — that’s the biggie, with the biggest fish going for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that is not a typo) — but it isn’t easy. They only allow 120 spectators in, and demand for a seat is high. The auction starts at 5 AM every day and it is recommended that you show up two hours before that if you want to have a decent shot at getting a seat in the gallery.  So naturally Alice and I, intrepid travelers that we are, looked at each other and said…. “Uh uh.”

If like us you are sane enough not to go to the auction, your next best course of action is to show up at  the much more congenial hour of 10 AM, at which time the wholesale floor opens to the public. The wholesale area is a huge warehouse, a good one or two city blocks in size, shaped like a giant Quonset hut with endless banks of incandescent lights receding into the gloom above you. As you enter — being careful not to break your neck on the perpetually slippery floor as it is constantly hosed down — you pass through the loading area, dodging the little electric loading trucks as they barrel heedlessly past you.

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“Hey, does this place smell fishy to you?”

Once past the loading area, you find yourself in a maze of stalls, navigating past the vendors on narrow passageways which, somehow, the delivery flatbeds still manage to squeeze though without killing anybody. No matter which passageway you turn down or which direction you look, you are likely to see scenes and characters like this:

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They sell every fish you have ever heard of, and a fair number you have not. There were more than a few specifies that neither of us could identify, but there were plenty that we could: tuna, eel, gar, snapper, clams, scallops, mussels, octopus, whelks, crabs, shrimp, and on and on. It was pretty impressive, and a lot of fun to behold. Some of the vendors have all their wares on ice; others have them displayed live in tanks. There are hoses and Styrofoam bins of crushed ice absolutely everywhere — and a few stations manned by guys whose sole job was to continuously wrangle suitcase-sized blocks of ice into giant ice crushers.

The complex is ringed by countless tiny seafood restaurants — some seating ten people or less — and street vendors, all offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be seafood in its many forms, prepared in as many ways. Radiating out from the ring of restaurants is a network of crowded market alleyways, also thronged with people, seafood restaurants, and sushi vendors. So here is our lunch being prepared:

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That’s about eight different kinds of fresh seafood — at least one of which we couldn’t even identify — steamed and then braised with a blowtorch over the grill, and served on a big scallop shell with a pair of chopsticks. Seriously good.

That evening, we did the Shibuya Scramble.

The what?

The Shibuya Scramble is not a dance, though it sort of sounds like one. Although come to think of it, it actually is a sort of dance, as you will see in a moment. More narrowly, it is a place, officially known as Shibuya Crossing, an enormous intersection in front of the Sibuya train station in central Tokyo. Five streets come together in a very broad intersection ringed by over-illuminated multistory department stores, pachinko parlors, restaurants, and everything else, all with animated light displays. It looks like this:

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Even the side streets get into the act:

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So the name of the game, as elsewhere in Tokyo, is “sensory overload”. But what makes Shibuya Crossing special — and it shows up in most “Top Ten” lists of things to see in Tokyo — is the traffic flow, which would probably not have been your first guess. The thing is, that because of the stores and the train station, an exceptionally large number of pedestrians flow through this huge multi-lane intersection at any given moment, and the traffic lights are timed such that everybody crosses in every direction at the same time. The lights turn green and the scene suddenly looks like an explosion in an anthill:

shibuya-005 Hence the name “Shibuya Scramble.” At ground level, in the middle of the crowd, here is what you see as you cross:

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If you want to see this in action, check out this YouTube video. And if you want to watch it as it happens, there is even this live feed webcam. There is a weird anticipatory pleasure as you watch the ebb and flow of people, watching the car traffic pass through the intersection as you wait for the magic moment when the light turns and those hundreds of people all surge forward at once. It’s sort of like watching the waves at the ocean.

In short, the Shibuya Scramble is utterly lunatic and it is enormous, incomprehensible fun to be a part of… I’m not altogether sure why. It is, in its way, quintessentially Japanese: a detailed, choreographed aesthetic overlaid with a veneer of batshit craziness. Or maybe the other way around. It’s Blade Runner meets the Bolshoi. We’re really glad we went.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tree-Climbing Goats. ‘Nuff Said.

Our group split up this morning with much hugging and promising to stay in touch. But before I depart Marrakech journalistically I’d like to offer two final photos. This one is an overview of the square at night; the lit tents are all food stands and you can see the crowds milling in the darkness, overseen by the lit mosque at top right. (This photo was taken by our travelmate Liz, who also took the shot of me face to face with a camel at our hotel in Erfoud about a week ago. She demands a photo credit, so this is it. I will also provide an unsolicited plug for Elizabeth D. Kennedy & Co. Catering in Vero Beach, Florida. Are we cool now, Liz?)

And here at last is the grand final group shot of our 16-person OAT ensemble on our last night together. That’s our tour lead and father figure Momo at the far left. Alice is on the floor in the blue shawl, with Thumper behind and to her right. That’s me and Steve next to each other at lower right. And on the floor at center, dressed as either a Berber woman or Pocahontas (they’re surprisingly similar) is Liz the Caterer, who has now been mentioned by name four times in two paragraphs, which ought to be enough for anybody.

Goodyes all said and hugs all exchanged, the remaining six of us set off for Essaouira: Alice and me, Steve and Thumper, Pat (at Thumper’s right in the group photo) and Dave (3rd from right in the back). We have a new tour lead for this final leg of the trip, a handsome and fit-looking 32 year old named (wait for it) Mohammed, who has been with OAT for less than a year but has been a tour guide for seven. We have also downsized from our bus back to our original van, since there are only six of us again, plus Mohammed and the driver. Mohammed sits up front with the microphone and keeps up a pretty continuous patter of facts, figures, history, and legends.

Essaouira is a resort town on the Atlantic coast, about 100 miles west of Marrakech, known especially for kite surfing because of its winds. It’s also in a region that is pretty much the sole producer of the presently-trendy Argan oil. Which is how, halfway there, we came to encounter the tree-climbing goats.

What? You don’t know about the tree climbing goats? You are obviously not fully up to date on your viral YouTube videos. I will help you out by offering you these photos:

At this point you are entitled to ask exactly what the hell is going on here. Here is the official narrative:

The Argan tree bears a fruit that the goats like to eat, and they actually climb the tree to get at it. Then they do what animals of all types do, which is to say that they digest the edible part and poop out the indigestible part, which is a nut about the size of an olive. People then sift the nuts out of the goat droppings — you want to make sure you finish college so that you can avoid this career — and then crush and press the nuts to extract Argan oil. It is very popular for both cosmetic products as well as being edible as a dip or salad dressing. In addition, people like us come from far and wide to watch the goats climb the trees and do their thing.

That, at least, is the official story, which is in fact true as far as it goes but leaves out some significant parts. First, there aren’t enough goats in Morocco or anywhere else to satisfy the demand for this product, so in fact the virally famous tree-climbing, fruit-eating, nut-pooping goats are responsible for only a small fraction of the production; most of the nuts are harvested through conventional non-excretory means.

Second, the fruits bloom (and thus the nuts are only collected) from June through August, so if there isn’t any fruit then why are these goats climbing trees for us in mid-October? Answer: they aren’t. The guys who own the goats put them into the trees within easy sight of the highway so that passing tourist buses and vans (like ours) stop and the passengers (like us) get out pay the guys a dollar or so for the privilege of photographing their involuntarily-treed goats.

In our defense, I will remark that the goats seemed perfectly well fed and cared for and unperturbed about being in a tree out of season. A few munched contentedly on leaves. The rest kind of stood there and occasionally looked around, no doubt asking each other, “Wasn’t there fruit up here a couple of months ago?” and “Do any of you guys remember how to get down from here?”

So now you know. The day after tomorrow we will actually be visiting an Argan oil processing place, so I will probably have more exciting goat-related information at that time.

As we approached Essaouira from the hills to its east it became clear that it resembled seaside resort towns the world over: low blue and white buildings, hotels along a strip of beach. The are two small offshore islands, as you can see in the picture: the long low structure at the left end of the leftmost island is an old prison, no longer in use. (I guess it’s the Alcatraz of Essaouira.)

The town, as we inferred from the distance, could easily be a resort in Greece, France, or Spain. You can see the town square here; there’s a street off at the left that leads into a maze of shops, a sort of more sanitary, PG-rated version of the grimy souks of Marrakech. They are wider, cleaner, and generally more tourist-friendly if less authentic in their choice of goods.

Adjacent to this square was a promenade of open-air grilled seafood tents, all blue and white, all equipped with benches and shrouded in charcoal smoke from the fish, all displaying their piscine offerings on a bed of ice out front, all with staff inveigling inviting you to inspect the fish and come sit down. Which we did, Mohammed choosing stall #14. (I know this because as we left, the owner kept shouting after us, “Remember us! We’re stall number 14!”. Which is understandable, because there are about 25 of them, all identical.)

The ordering process was essentially random, the owner throwing some samples of aquatic life onto a tray for Mohammed’s inspection and then ushering us to a picnic bench. A short while later, vast quantities of shrimp, squid, monkfish, and sardines, all charcoal grilled, were delivered to our table, and we attacked it with a combination of plastic forks, our fingers, and gusto. It was as fresh as fresh could be, grilled to perfection, accompanied by fresh French baguettes, and fabulous. (I am a sucker for grilled sardines. Steve remarked that if I took off my sunglasses that he expected to see my eyes rolling back into my head.)

After lunch we headed into the market street, an activity that can engage Alice and our credit cards for hours but which I tire of quickly. Pat and I split off, intending to head back to the hotel, but as we passed back through the square our attention was drawn to the sea wall and the boats there. We wandered over to explore and were rewarded by finding ourselves in the fish market, among the boats themselves, where the catch was unloaded and the raw fish — the stuff we saw at lunch, plus some crustaceans and lots of eels — variously negotiated for and sold at stands.

Alice returned from her hunting and gathering a short while after Pat and I returned to the hotel, having bargained aggressively for more crafts that will somehow magically fit into our suitcase in three days.

Oh, speaking of hotels, we are staying across the sett from the beach, serenaded by seagulls, at the Hotel des Iles, one of the venerable hotels of the area. It is elegant in a spare sort of way, with wide hallways, high ceilings, and a lot of open space. One of its claims to fame is a room named after Orson Wells, who I think may have stayed here. It’s hard to tell: the entire town is Orson Wells-crazy because his movie “Othello” was filmed here in 1952 and no one has gotten over the excitement yet. There is a statue of him just off the town square.

Sunset is in about an hour as I type this. Our plan is to watch it from the hotel rooftop before dinner. We will tour the city tomorrow and probably learn more about Orson Wells.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Venice: The Incredible S(hr)inking City

You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.

But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:

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Venice, appearing as advertised

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Venice-7Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure.  Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.

So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)

Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.

Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.

Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.

We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.

Venice-2

The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for  some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.

Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?

The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)

Venice-5Venice-6And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.

We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:

  • Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
  • Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
  • Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
  • …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks

…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.

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