Posts Tagged With: hotel

Weasel Poop Central

Dalat is a college town of about 400,000 people with a large (13,000 students) regionally well-known university. It’s only about 30 miles from Nha Trang as the crow flies, but it’s a 3-4 hour bus ride; Dalat is up in the mountains at about 5000′ (1500 m) elevation, and the road to it is steep, winding, and very slow. It does take you through some scenic valleys with narrow waterfalls threading down the cliffsides.

Dalat IMG_8729-HDRThere used to be a rail line connecting Dalat with Saigon but the Viet Cong blew it up during the war and it has never been replaced. It does have an airport with twice-daily flights to Saigon, though. (People seem to randomly call it either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City as the mood strikes them, though the latter has been the official name since 1975.)

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the railroad, though, at least among the very small community consisting of a burnt-out expat American who opened a restaurant called the Train Villa Cafe, which sports a railroad car behind the building. He used to be the general manager of Tower Records in Singapore, but he moved here in 1991, married a local woman, and (according to Phil) has been running this restaurant and drinking himself to death since then. We ate lunch there, and he did arrange for some of the local hill tribespeople to come and perform some traditional music for us.

Dalat IMG_8767They are called the Kho, part of a larger set of hill tribes that are collectively known in the West as Montagnards. The Kho themselves are subdivided into a number of groups, including the Khmer in Cambodia. They have a very characteristic style of dress — dark blue cotton with vertical colored stripes as you see in the photo — and speak their own language. This particular family of musicians had been educated in the cities and spoke Vietnamese as well. The Kho language is significantly different from Vietnamese; Phil does not speak it.

We continued on to our hotel, a large ornate place with the inexplicable name of the Sammy Hotel. No one seems to know who “Sammy” was, but the architecture is pretty purely French Colonial and — because of our frequent travel with OAT — we have been upgraded to a very large and pretty snazzy suite, with a full living room and two baths. Yay!

The weather was deteriorating by mid-afternoon but we headed out anyway — eventually getting poured upon — to visit the Linh Phuoc Buddhist temple, a large and impossibly ornate complex in which every exterior square foot — and quite a bit of interior space as well — is covered by elaborate dragon-themed ceramic mosaic tile and statuary. It is an utter riot of color and detail, something that Antoni Gaudi would have happily designed if he had been into Buddhism.

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Dalat IMG_8891-HDRThe interior is no less elaborate, and includes some creepily realistic statuary along with all the ceramic frou-frou.

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Dalat IMG_8870By the time we left we were in a full-on downpour, which continued for the next four hours; it is the monsoon season.

It was still pouring at 6:30 PM when we were picked up at our hotel by a cheerful young woman in a rain poncho, riding a motorbike. (Vietnamese use their scooters to go anywhere at any time; monsoon rains are of no consequence.) Her name was Nhii, and she is the 26 year old daughter of the host family with whom we had dinner at home last night. As I have mentioned before, every OAT trip has a generous dollop of interaction with the locals, and each trip usually includes dinner at home with a local family.  Nhii put us into a taxi, and then led the way home through the driving rain on her motorbike.

Dalat IMG_8908Those are Nhii’s parents at left, and our travel mates Hazel and Bruce on the right. Nhii’s father is a retired archivist with the government; her mother is retired from a bank. Nhii herself is a receptionist at a hotel and the only one of them that spoke any English. (Hers was pretty rocky but serviceable enough for the occasion.) The language barrier put things off to a slow start, but as we started showing each photos of our various grandchildren, things picked up. Nhii’s mom is an excellent cook and served us a nice meal that included pho, spring rolls, sticky rice, and a salad that had a large number of hard-boiled quail eggs in it. The evening was enjoyable enough, but we would have liked to see more of the house (we never got out of the living room and dining room) and learn more about their lives. (We learned a lot more about Nhii since she could converse.)

The rain had stopped by the time we headed back to the hotel, and we slept well enough in our Colonial Overlord room to take on more ambitious sightseeing today.

Dalat is a major center for wholesale flower cultivation and sales; it is sort of the Holland of this part of Asia. Flowers are big, big business here, and the best way to illustrate that is to show you this panorama looking into the valley adjacent to the downtown part of the city:

Dalat IMG_8812-PanoWith the exception of the tile roofs in the foreground, every single building in that image is a greenhouse, hundreds and hundreds of them filling the valley. Here’s the interior of one of them, and happy Alice — who is an avid gardener, unlike myself, and much in her element here — with a sample bloom.

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Dalat IMG_8931I am informed that that is a gerbera daisy.

The greenhouses are not made of glass, but rather nylon, which we were told is a technique invented by the Israelis. Water condenses on the interior and drips into the gutters that you can see running the length of the structure, thus minimizing the need for an external water supply.

Besides flowers, the other cash crop in these parts is coffee, and so of course we were morally obliged to visit a coffee plantation. Since we live in Kona (Hawaii) for about five weeks a year that was not exactly new and exciting for us — and I don’t even drink the stuff — but here you go anyway:

Dalat IMG_8937-PanoWe got The Coffee Spiel. There are three types of coffee here, being Arabica, Mocha, and Something Elsa-a (Robusta, I think), and the differences are [at this point my brain turns off due to total indifference]. So of course they sat us down and served us a sample, which everyone duly admired, except for Alice, who literally shuddered and sotto voce averred it much inferior to Kona coffee.

Dalat IMG_8942Those are our travel mates Yvonne, Karen, and Joan. Yvonne looks a little dubious.

But this was not the main event. Oh no, far from it. This particular coffee was conventionally grown and processed. At no point did it emerge from a weasel’s digestive tract.

You may perhaps have heard of kopi luwak, the fabulously expensive Indonesian coffee that is processed from beans that have been eaten and excreted by a civet cat. Well, guess what? They do it here too. They call the creature a weasel here, but it is the same animal, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus if you’re taxonomically inclined. It is not related to the ferret-like thing that we in the West call a weasel, but looks rather like a raccoon. Here’s one in its cage at the plantation.

Dalat IMG_8975So the deal is, they feed the coffee “cherry” — the red fruit with the bean at its core — to the animal, which dutifully poops it out the other end, its digestive enzymes having dissolved the fruit and worked some chemical miracle upon the bean. The poop is dried in the sun and the beans then extracted by machine (thank God). You then process the beans and charge a zillion dollars a pound for them because people are insane. I mean seriously, this is certainly the only consumable substance in the world where declaring, “This tastes like shit,” is considered a compliment.

Dalat IMG_8948Note the sign above. For the record, I was not tempted to take any away. I am however going to start an emo band named “Weasel Feces”.

Alice, who is a coffee snob, was very disdainful of the whole thing but upon actually tasting it — they gave everyone about a half a shot glass to try — declared it quite excellent after all.  And as I looked on in head-scratching wonder she actually plunked down money to buy a few ounces, at a price that scaled to US $90 a pound.  That’s about three times the price of good Kona coffee. She is unable to testify that it is three times as good.

That adventure under our belt, we climbed onto a flatbed hitched to a tractor — this has been an especially interesting trip, transportation-wise — and literally headed for the hills, traveling a short distance up into the hills to visit a Montagnard/Kho village. Our first encounter was with some fierce children (one was wearing a Batman teeshirt so you know this is serious) who took a break from chasing each other around to threaten to eat us.

Dalat IMG_8994We navigated this existential threat — I taught two of them to play Thumb War in case my grandsons ever visit here — and spent some time talking to the village headman and his wife, who was patiently weaving through part of the conversation.

It’s an interesting society, matriarchal for starters; property is handed down through the women in the family, and arranged marriages have been abolished.

That’s as much of Dalat as we have time for. Tomorrow morning we fly to Saigon for the last leg of the trip. We’ll be there for three nights, then leave for home on Saturday.

 

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russian to Nha Trang

We left Hoi An yesterday morning (Saturday Sep 28), heading back to Da Nang to pick up our flight to Nha Trang. But traffic was worse than our driver had anticipated and we were cutting it kind of close by the time we arrived at the airport. We felt pretty rushed to get checked in and through security, which is basically identical to the security at an American airport except that our Global Entry/TSA Precheck designation does us no good here. We made it to the gate just as boarding was starting.

Never heard of Nha Trang? That’s because you’re not a Russian tourist. It’s a big beach resort town, very popular with Russians. It’s also been a big deal since the war because it is the home of Cam Ranh Bay, considered to be the best sheltered deep water bay in Southeast Asia and thus the idea spot for a naval base. Indeed, one of the many specious justifications for the Vietnam War was that the US Navy must hold on to Cam Ranh Bay because otherwise the Russians would get it and hoo boy, pretty soon there’d be Russian amphibious craft landing at Waikiki.

Well, the Russians did get it and somehow neglected to take over the Pacific. They left several years ago and it’s now a Vietnamese naval base, which they are considering turning into a civilian facility to service international shipping traffic. This is actually a pretty canny move because the area undergoes continual encroachments by the Chinese navy, which as you may know has a lot of expansionist designs in the region. Chinese vessels harass and frequently sink Vietnamese fishing boats.

Anyway, Nha Trang is now a very modern-looking beach resort town with a lot of Russian signage. We are staying in the Yasaka hotel, a pretty nice high-rise that is actually owned by the Vietnamese government. That fact leads to a lot of stereotypical mental images and obvious jokes, but other than having somewhat mediocre food (we have gotten really spoiled on this trip) it’s perfectly comfortable, up to date, and attractive. Here’s the view from our room.

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Doesn’t exactly scream “Third World”, does it? Take away the mountains and it could be Miami Beach. The night scene is all glitzy neon along the beachfront hotels; there’s even a big casino.

Around 5 PM Phil convened the group for a cultural discussion, in particular a lesson about the plight of the so-called Amerasians, the children of American soldiers and local women, sired during the war. There are something like 77,000 of them and they did not have an easy time of it here. Utter social outcasts, 90% eventually emigrated to the US. Many tried to track down and contact their fathers but, this all having happened decades before DNA testing, only 6% succeeded.

Following this rather somber discussion, we hopped back onto our little bus (did I ever mention that there are 15 people in our group?) and headed out to a “street food” dinner. It was a large unadorned hall, very smoky because of the small charcoal hibachis at each table. Here’s the scene:

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The lower photo is part of our group: Dave, Karen, and Yvonne (who is getting smoke in her face). As you can see from what Karen and several people in the upper photo are doing, in the US you would call this either Korean barbecue or Japanese teppanyaki. Here they just call it barbecue. They brought us plates of vegetables, beef, tuna, calamari, and large prawns as well as rice and a couple of dipping sauces. Phil cautioned us not to undercook the food for reasons that do not need explaining. (Eating sushi around here would be a very high risk activity.) But it was fun, it was tasty, and it forced you to shower back at the hotel because you and your clothing smelled like smoke afterwards.

Rather than returning to the bus, we elected to walk back to to hotel, less than a mile away. That was a good choice: we cut through some small side streets to enjoy the sights of a food vendor…

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..a cafe…

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… and a funeral. Wait, what?

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Yes, a funeral. Or at least a wake. The seated guy in the back wearing the FILA teeshirt is playing a keyboard, and the people in the building are paying respects at a shrine honoring the deceased. It was quite the hubbub, and the music was pretty loud (there was a drum track going too); if Phil had not told us that it was a funeral, we would not have guessed.

The street cut through to the beach, which we followed back to the hotel. There were a number of groups having parties on the sand. The walkway itself was a palm tree-lined promenade that would past small open gathering areas that sported benches and even exercise machines. It could have been a night beach scene from anywhere, and it was doubly pleasant because the temperatures had dropped into the upper 70’s.

We got back to the hotel at about 9 PM and crashed. That ‘s good, because today was a long day, a “Day In The Life” as Phil called it, that included motorbike rides, cooking, and other local real-life activities. I’ll write about it in a day or two.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On to Hoi An

If you are traveling in Asia for any period of time then there will come a point when a certain two words will strike fear in your heart: “Buddhist Temple”. There are a lot of them, and you may be sure that at some point you will feel that either you have visited every one or must feel vaguely guilty for not having done so. We hit that point yesterday morning on our way out of Hué when we stopped at a temple both whose name and history went in one ear and out another. I will grant that it was in a beautiful and serene setting, marked by a cool pagoda over looking the Perfume River. That’s about all I can tell you about it, so here are shots of the pagoda and the river scene that it overlooks.

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The colorful boat at the bottom is a dragon boat, the same one we were aboard the previous night for our folk music concert. The river is full of them; they are popular tourist attractions and also serve as houseboats for the owners.

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We walked down to the river bank from the pagoda and boarded “our” now familiar dragon boat, then set off down the river. No concert this time, just a few minutes of Zen as we motored peacefully down the Perfume River. Phil took the wheel for a few minutes, then asked if anyone wanted to try. You never want to pass up an opportunity like that — I have driven an ox cart in Thailand, mind you — so I jumped up and sat myself down, successfully navigating us down the river for about ten minutes, including passing under a bridge without actually hitting anything.

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Back on the bus, we left town heading for Da Nang and then Hoi An, the latter a center for crafts and our destination for the next three nights. The city gave way to countryside surprisingly quickly, and we were underway for well less than an hour, paralleling the coast before we found ourselves in a very rural area indeed, with the Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon on our right as a foreground to the mountains of Bach Ma National Park. The lagoon hosts a large number of traditional oyster farms, and the nets and poles stick out of the shallow water along a few mile stretch. I desperately wanted to stop the bus and take some photos but we were en route to a lunch reservation at a seafood restaurant out over the water where I might have another chance.

The restaurant, as it turns out, had a view of its own, as you can see here, and served us yet another spectacular eight course lunch.Hue IMG_7935-HDR-Pano

But I really wanted those oyster beds, and Phil — in typical OAT Tour Lead style — delivered. As we were finishing lunch, he whispered to me to follow him outside and, admonishing me not to tell anyone we were doing this, handed me a motorcycle helmet and led me to a motorbike. He got on, I got on behind him, and off we went, a mile or so down the road to a spot that afforded me these views.

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This sort of thing is one of the reasons we travel with OAT.

Lunch consumed, we continued Hoi An-ward. But along the way, we passed through a 4-mile long tunnel that brought us to the city of Da Nang, the largest city in central Vietnam. That’s a pretty well known name to my generation: Da Nang airport was one of the hubs of US military operations during the war, and at the war’s peak was the busiest airport in the world.  It’s still a major port and fishing center, and as you exit the long tunnel into the city you first cross, and then drive along, a river dotted with blue fishing boats. In Vietnamese tradition, many are decorated with stylized eyes at the front.

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We walked along the river bank and encountered two unusual (for us) sights: first, a man fishing in a coracle, which is basically a bowl that serves as a boat, i.e.:

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Phil informs us that the popularity of these devices — I keep thinking there should be a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker in there — stems from the fact that boats are taxed and these are not. So if you’ve got good balance and minimal space requirements, it makes financial sense. According to Wikipedia, the craft is actually of Welsh origin, where its name is — you might want to sit down for this —  cwrwgl. (That’s not actually as unpronounceable as it looks: the Welsh w is a vowel that is pronounced like oo.) Anyway, how they got to Vietnam is not clear to me; apparently they are used in Iraq and India too.

The other new sight to us was a method of fishing that I had never heard of: flour in a jar of water.  You take a jar (about the size of a peanut butter jar), fill it 3/4 with water and stir in a tablespoon or two of flour. Attach to a fishing line, twirl around and cast, then wait a moment and drag it back in. A fish (a small one, obviously) swims in to eat the flour and if you drag it back at the right speed it is stuck in the jar. This guy on the riverbank successfully demonstrated this technique to us, and of course a couple of us tried and failed. I had never heard of this technique… any fishermen reading this, have you?

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Rather more conventionally, a little further up the road we stopped at China Beach, one of Vietnam’s major resort areas. It’s a 20 mile stretch of sandy beach, a popular R&R venue for American soldiers during the war. Today it sports resort hotels along part of its length, but the stretch where we stopped was pretty deserted, save for a few coracles scattered along the beach and some fisherman pulling nets in the surf. You can see all the fishing boats anchored just offshore.

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We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon, but deferred going into town until this morning; I’ll write about that in a day or so. We are staying at the Hoi An Silk Village resort hotel, which is quite the most luxurious place we have ever stayed on an OAT trip. It’s spread out over about 10 “villas” of several very large rooms each, in a complex that includes two large infinity swimming pools plus a tastefully upscale shopping complex featuring local crafts — Hoi An’s claim to fame — at about twice the price that you’d pay in the town itself, barely a mile down the road.

What we did do, a couple of hours after arriving, was get a Vietnamese cooking lesson/demo from the hotel chef, who was a major league wise guy and quite funny to watch. Here are a couple of travel mates, Kim and Linda, getting a lesson in spring rolls..

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…and here we are, going full Iron Chef to end the day.

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Saving the Children

We flew via Cessna from Kulala International Airport — not really, I mean the dirt landing strip I showed you yesterday — back through the desert for the 45 minute hop to Walvis Bay. A century or so ago, Walvis Bay was the happening place, the radiant of German colonial expansion into Namibia. It was the whaling and commerce center. Today it is still the major shipping center, an industrial port for the export of salt, copper, and uranium; there is a recreational beach and a lot of fishing, but otherwise from our limited perspective it had little to recommend it outside of our restaurant lunch on the water.

With one exception: the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. There are hundreds of them, pallid pink on their bodies but the flaming color of the inside of a blood orange on the tops of their wings.

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Those guys in the top image who look like they’re recreating the cover of the Abbey Road Beatles album are in fact doing a Michael Jackson imitation. Seriously, they don’t just stand there but rather work their feet back and forth in what looks for all the world like MJ’s moonwalk, the objective being to stir up the silt and thus scatter the small fish and shrimp that are their preferred food.

Since we didn’t have any significant amounts of copper or uranium among us, we left immediately after lunch, driving the half hour north to the resort town of Swakopmund. Swakop draws a lot of German tourists — most of the restaurants seem to be German — and has a long and inglorious history as a German enclave; it is only since independence in 1990 that the all-white, all-German private high school was repurposed into an integrated public school, and the locals — including our driver Joe — still bear a great deal of animus towards them. The town’s former industrial base was the large Hansa Brewery, and the layout of the town still reflects this: the streets are very broad, wide enough for beer-carrying freight trucks to maneuver.

Our hotel is another avatar of this colonial history, its architecture resembling European colonial mansions everywhere, with whitewashed colonnades, an English garden, and sweeping staircases. It’s just a tad different from our Namib desert camp. Its name, aptly enough, is the Hansa Hotel.

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With this uninspiring historical background, today was very much a cultural immersion day. Our first stop was the Festus Gonteb Primary School, a K-7 institution educating nearly 1100 students, nearly half of whom walk the mile distance from “DRC”, the sprawling 15,000-person shantytown Democratic Resettlement Community down the road. (More on DRC below.)

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We received background information about the school from FGPS’s earnest if longwinded principal, who then turned us over to two 7th grade “prefects”, i.e. top students (both girls) who are given assorted academic, outreach, and disciplinary responsibilities for their achievements. (The “disciplinary” part kind of weirded us out, in truth; the principal’s description made it sound like they girls were being promoted to some kind of stool pigeon, and we wondered darkly whether they still had any friends left.)

We split into two groups, one with each prefect. I went to a 3rd grade class with our impressively poised and articulate prefect Jennifer; Alice was in a group that visited a class of 6th graders. The students were nothing if not enthusiastic to see us.

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My camera alone was a big hit, and I made the mistake of allowing one of the kids to take a picture of me with it, instead of the other way around, which of course meant that I was swarmed by every kid in the class who also wanted to take a picture with it and look at the resulting image. I now have about twenty lousy pictures of myself, none of which show my windmilling arms as I frantically attempt to keep about two dozen pairs of enthusiastic hands away from my very expensive lens.

The kids sang songs for us — and we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round in return — then said a prayer and sang us farewell.

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We in turn left behind a load of school supplies that we had purchased, and received a boatload of hugs in return. We were impressed: these kids were enthusiastic, well-behaved, curious, and very affectionate. They have a lot to offer; we hope that there is hope for them.

As I mentioned, about half the kids walk to school from the “DRC”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, basically a government-sponsored shantytown. The government provides the land and lights the wide dirt streets, but provides no electricity otherwise. Residents scrounge materials to build shacks, and are given a metal ID token that, when inserted into a hydrant-like water station, allows them to access to water. The shanties are otherwise without plumbing, though a sewer line is in the works.

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At the edge of the shantytown is an actual (very) low cost housing development being built by the government, with rows of simple roofed conventional houses that rather like military base housing. The long term plan is to build more and more of these and gradually replace the shanties with actual small houses that the DRC residents are able to own.

Our destination within DRC was a soup kitchen, a rather remarkable three-room operation run by the inhumanly formidable Miss Katrina (a.k.a Mother Katrina) in the form of the Dantago Communities Rising organization; see the link for their Facebook page. Katrina has a day job as a restaurant manager in town but appears to operate in some kind of spacetime warp as she also runs Dantago as a combined soup kitchen/day care/community garden/craft store. Here she is with some of her charges, the latter taken in — sometimes during the day, sometimes semi-permanently — from parents who cannot care well for them. In a few cases those mothers, e.g., disabled by alcoholism, actually work at the center making jewelry for sale, or tending the garden to sell vegetables (the latter not so easy during a four-year drought). “Center”, by the way, is a rather strong word for the structure, which is a three-room shanty with no electricity or running water.

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Our contribution was to bring a load of vegetables, cut them up, and watch Lloyd and Katrina’s helpers make stew, which we then ladled out to the kids.

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My contribution was to start a riot by showing my camera to the kids as I took their pictures, thereby triggering the same grabfest that I had experienced (and caused) at the Festus school an hour earlier. Here I am in full Sensitive Tourist mode, trying to keep those grubby little hands off my goddamn lens. (Thanks to Sherryl for this picture, which I shall perhaps forward to Angelina Jolie.)

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I should mention, by the way, that I asked Katrina whether it was OK for me to take pictures. Her response: “Take as many pictures as you can. Send them to everyone you know. The more people that know about us, the better!” So consider yourself informed. It seems trite and mawkish, but I truly could not look at these kids without thinking of my own three grandchildren (ages 9 months, 21 months, and 5 years), who of course want for nothing and in all likelihood never will. Katrina’s reserves of energy, compassion, and patience are virtually inconceivable to me. (And she is not unique, as I’ll get to in a moment.)

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Grinding poverty notwithstanding, things are apparently never too dire for a makeover, and travelmate Wanda went to work with gusto. We soon had a soup kitchen full of juvenile, brightly painted nails.

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The child in the above photo, by the way, is from the San tribe, i.e. the Bushmen.

Our final stop was an actual orphanage, the “Tears of Hope” in the nearby township of Mondesa, run by the no less formidable Naftaline Maua, whom you see here in sort-of-traditional Himba garb.

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I say “sort of” traditional because actual Himba garb consists of very little indeed, plus red ochre hair coloring. The original German colonists — or more accurately, the original female German colonists were none too crazy about this, first because their husbands’ eyeballs were bugging out all the time, and second because those same husbands kept coming home from a hard day of oppressing the natives with red ochre stains in very difficult-to-explain places. So they strongarmed the men, in particular the clergy, into forcing the native women to wear Victorian dresses. As a sop to the actual Himba culture, however, they developed headwear designed to resemble to cattle horns, since the Himba were cattle farmers. Hence Naftaline’s hat and dress.

Naftaline has an interesting history of her own as an AIDS counselor, which you can read a bit about by clicking here. Now she runs a 6-bedroom home that houses 21 orphans (none, fortunately, with HIV). She is an outgoing energetic woman who apparently needs no sleep, and who with her daughter prepared a wonderful lunch for us in her dining room, featuring lamb and polenta seasoned with spicy tomato-y chakalaka relish. (Here’s the recipe if you’re interested.)

Turns out that a couple of her wards attend the Festus school we had visited that morning, and indeed a few came home and said hello to us since school was ending (or on lunch break) while we were there.  We left behind some household goods and clothing for her, then returned to our hotel to contemplate our spectacularly non-poverty-stricken lives.

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gone With The Windhoek

Windhoek is located smack in the middle of Namibia, about an hour and a half flight from Johannesburg. Coincidentally, an hour and a half is also the same amount of time you will wait to get your passport stamped by the immigration lady at the airport, should another flight happen to arrive at the same time as yours.

Having been waved through customs, we met up with our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) guide, Lloyd. Lloyd is a jolly 40-ish Zimbabwean, burly with a round face and beard and who, appropriately enough, reminds me of Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was the militant founder of UNITA, one of the forces that waged a successful guerrilla war for the independence of neighboring Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. He is considered a regional hero. (And he died in a military action in 2002.) I have no idea whether Lloyd is heroic, but he seems — like all OAT tour leads — very friendly, helpful, and well-informed. Here he is:

So our group is now complete. There are 14 of us plus Lloyd. These include our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper, plus the “Boise Girls”, Christy and Becky, both from the aforementioned Boise, Idaho. We met them three years ago in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert, on a previous OAT trip (which you can read about here). You meet all the best people there, possibly because of the large quantities of lithium in the soil. They are fun travelmates, adventurous and as cheerful as one can possibly be, especially considering that they come from a state that is most widely known for its potatoes.

The rest of our soon-to-be-determined-whether-or-not-they-are-merry band includes:

  • Cheryl and David from Tampa, Florida, who to escape hurricane Irma had to drive 19 hours to catch their flight from New York, and who spent the first day of the trip wondering whether they still had a house. (Turns out they did.)
  • Gene and Mlu from Las Vegas. “Mlu” is a nickname for Merrilu, which apparently her friends do not have time to say. They come from Las Vegas and estimate that this is their 17th or 18th OAT trip. I hope gives them something when they hit 20; their own 747 would be a nice gesture.
  • Wayne and Nikki, and Al and Wanda, who are traveling together, also from Florida, also friendly and well-traveled. Al in particular has a sharp sense of humor that definitely puts him in the category with Steve as “Someone I would like to trade insults with.” Wayne, Nikki, and Wanda I have not yet gotten to know very well outside of their engaging deep-dish southern drawls, but this will change. Wayne’s defining visual characteristic is his regal, Reaganesque white pompadour, accompanying mustache, and trim physique. If his friends do not call him the Silver Fox, they should start immediately.

The 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel took us through scrubby high desert terrain, punctuated by small acacia trees about 20′ tall. It resembles eastern Oregon, although when you drive through eastern Oregon you do not generally see dikdiks and baboons by the side of the road, as we did here.

The area is sparsely populated, dotted with the occasional private ranch. They are burning the grass fields, so the sky is noticeably hazy, which accentuates the hot, dry weather. Windhoek is at an elevation of about a mile (1600 m ), which moderates the temperature that is nonetheless in the upper 80’s F (about 31C). And it is dry, very dry, less than 20% humidity as our desiccated lips are reminding us.  Chapstick is the order of the day.

The suburban area that we drove through en route to the hotel (called Klein Windhoek) was bipolar. Prior to ascending a long, steep hill to our hotel — the Thule, a few miles outside of Windhoek proper (pop. 400,000), on a hilltop overlooking the city — we passed through a slightly seedy mixed commercial and residential area, whose street names are a mixture of local historical names (e.g., Nelson Mandela Ave.) and German ones (Hofbahnstrasse, near the railway station). The latter reflect the original German colonization in the late 19th century. But as we ascended the hill the architecture gave way to very affluent-looking whitewashed suburban homes and mini-estates, all with contemporary architecture as one might find in a wealthy American suburb. We’ll see the city itself tomorrow.

Our hotel is a beautiful place. (You can check out pictures of the rooms and such on their website: http://www.hotelthule.com/.) We arrived there at about 4 PM and then congregated as a group two hours later for a tour briefing from Lloyd and a round table mutual introduction, which pretty quickly degenerated into a riot when Thumper announced by way of introduction that she received her nickname during a stint as a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming. If this is even remotely true then all I can say is that Laramie, Wyoming has probably never been the same. Meanwhile, David announced en passant that in addition to being a retired math teacher he is a mystery writer and song composer. Upon insistence of the group, he sang the first verse of a recent ouevre entitled “Predator Drone”. This is not going to be a dull group.

Introductions and tour briefing complete, and the jocularity level suitably high, we reboarded our little bus for a short ride to dinner at an excellent restaurant, where the entree choices were two dishes that most Americans have never heard of: kingclip (a fish) or eland (an antelope). Both were very good; the dinner was a great success, and we are now all primed for the coming two weeks.

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

Slouching Towards Johannesburg

Disclaimer: no photos in this post, since we haven’t yet been much of anyplace other then the inside of an airplane or the interior of an airport hotel in Johannesburg. I’ll resume my usual photo essay style once I, well, have some photos.

I have discovered that a 15 hour plane ride (New York to Jo’burg) makes me feel like a superhero, though not in any useful way. In particular:

(1) The constant vibration and low level noise feels over the great length of the flight as though it ought to be resonating my connective tissue and most of cell walls into a protoplasmic stew. Somehow this does not happen, which makes me think that I am secretly related to Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster himself, who can among other useful skills vibrate himself through solid objects.  I believe I felt myself actually merging with my seat cushion.  (As an aside, props to South African Airways for providing about 2″ more legroom than most American carriers in economy class. The Flash never worries about legroom because he can run fast enough to transport himself into parallel universes. I’m sure that at least one of those universes has airlines that only offer lots of legroom.)

(2) I develop Super Hearing, although it only works for slightly annoying sounds. It struck me that that the masking effect of the whooshing ventilation system combined with the engine rumble (see Vibrational Superpower above) makes everything sound a little muffled. Everything, that is, except for a ubiquitous crackling sound that, on reflection, turned out to be many of the 300 passengers randomly opening cellophane packages of whatever. Somehow every crinkle and crackle penetrates the vaguely subterranean roar that otherwise permeates the cabin. It actually sounds a bit like the popcorn-like snickity-snick sound that pervades tropical reefs when you go snorkeling: that is caused by parrotfish nibbling on coral. (At this point, if this were some kind of self-help book, I would helpfully observe that the similarity makes me feel like I am diving in a tropical lagoon even while crammed into an airline economy seat. News flash: it doesn’t.)

Even so, it could have been worse. Our 15 hour flight from New York was originally scheduled as a 16 hour flight from Atlanta. Since we were to fly out of Baltimore to Atlanta, and Hurricane Irma seemed to have that part of the country in her sights, we were understandably nervous about actually making our connection. My BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie assured me that I had nothing to worry, that she would on my behalf invoke pagan magical powers to ensure that Irma would not torpedo our itinerary. By way of proof she reminded me that it was due to her ministrations that our annual company summer picnic has enjoyed good weather every single year since she joined the firm.

All Angie required were some crow feathers and some other magical ingredients, unknown to me, but which I assume one does not normally obtain at an office supply store. So I gave her the go-ahead, thanked her in advance for her efforts… and with just a twinge of guilt changed our itinerary to connect through New York instead of Atlanta. And then —

If you’ve been following the Irma drama, you know that the storm weakened significantly and veered west. We would in fact have made our original connection. (Angie has forgiven me for my lack of faith, but I am going to have to bring back something nice from Namibia if I am to avoid a punishing round of I-told-you-sos.

The upshot is that we arrived in Johannesburg this morning at about 7:45 AM local time, slightly ahead of schedule, and after enduring a very long line at passport control were picked up and driven the short distance to our airport hotel. We are here for only tonight before flying to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, tomorrow.

Johannesburg — universally dubbed Jo’burg in conversation — is a large, dusty, hollow city of 4.4 million, plus another 2 million in the suburbs. By “hollow” I mean that the city center is built up but largely unoccupied, a grid of tall office buildings that give the city a Potemkin skyline because such a large fraction of them are empty. Business fled as one of the major revenue streams — gold mining — dried up, and as a result the downtown is now a crime-ridden warren of abandoned buildings. Downtown is ringed by residential areas as well as enormous sprawling shantytowns, largely devoid of electricity or plumbing and dotted by Port-a-Potties supplied by the local government councils. In short, Jo’burg is a decidedly unsafe metropolis where barbed wire and steel shutters are the ubiquitous decor, even on residences. We were told not to go anywhere on our own.

The one thing that we did do — and pretty much the only thing we had time for before dropping from exhaustion — was  visit the Apartheid Museum, which is an extremely worthwhile place to spend 2-3 hours. It is a modern building, marked by steel beams and rock walls on the outside as a reminder of the harsh conditions in the mines that so many black laborers endured. The inside is a maze-like self-guided tour through the entire history of apartheid from the 1940’s through its dissolution in the 1990’s, replete with oral histories, newsreel clips, photo displays, and documentary footage from the heartrending Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, in which government-sponsored torturers and willfully blind bureaucrats sought amnesty for their immoral activities under apartheid, in part by confessing their crimes to their victims.  The entire museum was informative and powerful, reminding me in some ways of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

We returned to our hotel, the O.R. Tambo Protea, to start meeting up with the rest of our group, starting with two of our previous traveling companions Steve and Thumper (who flew for about a billion hours to get here from San Francisco). The Protea is comfortable, with an excellent restaurant, the odd note being its neo-Mad Max architectural style, in which every surface is either an I-beam or corrugated aluminum, and where the lobby and bar are gaily decorated in machine tools, stacks of tires, and engine blocks. They really need to introduce a dress code requiring spiked leather collars at a minimum.

Tomorrow: Windhoek.

Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

tokyo-metro-map

Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Downtown Kona

“Kona” is technically a district on the Big Island, whose largest town (and the population center that people tend to refer to as “Kona”) is Kailua. It’s small, with a population of about 12,000, though it swells briefly to 35,000,000 every Wednesday when the cruise ships dock. The larger Kona area — it is hard to think of a town of 12,000 as having suburbs — is home to about 36,000 people. The tourist life of the town proper is of course centered on the waterfront that you see here.

Kailua downtown pan-001

Then hotel at the far right is the venerable Royal Kona hotel, which is designed to look like a ship. And the not-so-gently sloping horizon is the southern flank of 14,000′ Mauna Loa. As you can see, Kailua’s “skyline” is very un-Waikiki-like, which is very much to our taste.

A few days ago Ali’i Drive, the main drag along the water, was blocked off to auto traffic in order to hold a street fair where, as usual, local vendors showed off their wares and slack-key guitar players were abundant. Hawaii having both a large share of eccentric characters and a lot of tourists would lead you to predict that one would find an array of colorful personalities in such a setting, and you’d be right. So here are a few.

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Kailua portraits-009

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I call your attention to the fact that lady on the left in the third photo is wearing antennae. And judging from his hairstyle and mirrored sunglasses, I am guessing that they guy she is with is arranging a contract hit.

But the real point of discussion here is the impressive tattoo spanning the back of the lady in the bottom photo. It reads “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono“, which is the state motto of Hawaii and officially translates as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. However that translation is — and can only be — approximate, since Hawaiian is a language rooted in mystical reverence for the land and suffused with nuance. One of the big points of contention in this case is the fourth word, “Ea“, which in the official motto translates as “life” but can also be translated as “breath” or — and here’s where things get sticky — “sovereignty”. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a vocal Hawaiian sovereignty movement powered by the considerable array of historical injustices that led to (a) Hawaii being a U.S. state, and (b) only 1-2% of the population still knowing how to speak Hawaiian. (And even that is a big improvement over recent years: as recently as the year 2000 the number of speakers was only one-tenth of what it is now. So the language is enjoying a real resurgence.)

Hawaii is not about to be granted independence any time soon, but is certainly increasingly the case that the original language and culture are enjoying a lot more attention and respect than they did. It is not unlikely that the lady in this photo is part of the sovereignty movement.

So amidst all this diversity did we actually buy anything? Of course we did, though not a lot. We enjoyed another round of homemade fresh lilikoi-banana popsicles (seriously, those things are to die for), and Alice bought a table runner with a Hawaiian pattern. And there was of course food to sample, the most notable being a variety of hot sauces made with local ingredients. My favorite was one made with pineapple and scorpion peppers, which was like a fruity version of boiling lava. Incidentally, the Hawaiian word for “scorpion” is “kopiana”, which if you say it aloud sounds suspiciously like the English word; I find that a little strange since scorpions do exist here and so I’d expect a more Polynesian-sounding indigenous word for them. But never mind — I’ve got to go stuff some aloe leaves into my mouth now.

 

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

Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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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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