Posts Tagged With: market

Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

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The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

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But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

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The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

Pali lookout

Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

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Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

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And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Whirlwind Windhoek

See, “Windhoek” actually means “wind corner” in both Afrikaans and Dutch, and today was a whirlwind tour, thereby compounding the cleverness of my title and, oh forget it.

As I mentioned yesterday, Windhoek is about a mile above sea level, sitting on Namibia’s central plain. But it is on a plain within that plain, basically a bowl defined by the encircling Auas Mountains. (That’s pronounced “ouse“, in case you were wondering.) So here’s the view from our hotel restaurant.

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Recall that the neighborhood surrounding the hotel is an affluent one, filled with clean if somewhat boxy-looking houses as you can see here. Come down off the hill, however, and things are markedly grittier. The main downtown streets are about four lanes wide, lined with slightly down-at-the-heels looking businesses and some more prosperous looking banks and financial firms.

Downtown is also home to the National Museum of Namibia, whose main building is a bizarre structure donated by South Korea, and resembling some kind of postmodern water storage structure, i.e.:

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That’s national founder and first president Sam Nujoma standing out front. The perspective of the photo is a little misleading: Sam’s statue is about 20 feet tall including the base, whereas the building is about 10 stories high including all that empty space at the bottom (which, by the way, channels the wind in most spectacular fashion).

The actual museum part of the building is on three floors and is a more or less hagiographic accounting of the battle for liberation and Sam’s role in it. There are a number of informative and dramatic photos of the war and the people at the time, liberally interspersed with propaganda and neo-Stalinist art like these inspiring tableaus:

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Now there is more than a bit of irony here, astutely noted by travelmate Steve: we have here a museum celebrating a successful Communist-supported national liberation movement, built and paid for by… South Korea. What’s wrong with this picture?

Adjacent to the main building is an old German fort that has been repurposed a few times, most recently as part of the museum. But between 1904 and 1907 it was a German concentration camp for the native Herero and Nama tribes, whom the German colonists were determined to extirpate. Chillingly, the fort includes a plaque from that era helpfully explaining that the purpose of the facility was to house tribespeople as part of an effort to aid communication and ease intertribal tensions. Which it certainly did, since it is hard to argue with someone when you are both dead.

Several years after the attempted genocide, the Germans erected in town a memorial to the dead from the 1904-1907 slaughter………. the German dead.    The statue is of a German soldier on horseback, and in a further display of sensitivity the builders oriented the horse so that it faced Berlin. The locals reacted to this with all the enthusiasm that you’d expect, and the statue was removed from its home in a public square and relocated to the fort, where you can see it to this day.

We walked around downtown for a while, past the seedy little casinos, past the bare-breasted Himba tribeswomen selling handicrafts. Then we reboarded our bus and headed to the edge of the city to Katutura, one of many all-black so-called “townships” just outside the city. The townships were created as part of apartheid policies spilling over from South Africa; they were basically enforced suburbs, since blacks were not allowed to live downtown. Indeed, the word Katutura is Herero for “we have no place to live”. It is a downscale suburb, thick with single-story simple residences and small businesses such as barbers, car repair shops (used tires are a big business) and shebeens, the latter a sort of a hybrid gathering place, sundries store, and speakeasies for sometimes-illegal liquor.

But among the townships, Katutura has a particular draw: the Oshetu Community Market. Oshetu is a big tented farmers’ market offering everything from haircuts to wholesale freshly-killed sides of beef. It is a combination marketplace, business center, restaurant, and social hub.

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The beef business is of some note. At one side of the tented area are the beef wholesalers, standing by their tables piles high with huge slabs of meat, and the occasional flyblown cow head and legs lying on the ground nearby. They sell to the retailers, barely more than an arm’s length away, who then grill it and sell it in consumer-friendly quantities.

01 Windhoek 2017-083This we ate. We took small strips of barbecued beef off the grill, dipped it in seasoned salt and chili pepper proffered on a paper towel, and ate by hand. It was quite delicious, as long as you could avoid thinking about the likely bacteria count. A typical lunch, which followed, included this plus a loaf of polenta, chunks of which one would grab by hand and dip into a tomato salsa, also delicious. It is a communal activity: we all shared the same loaf of polenta (called “pap” locally) and bowl of salsa. So I am desperately hoping that no one in our group of 15 (including Lloyd) is sick, because in that case we all are, or will be shortly.

The grocery part of the market offers all the usual produce and staples, the former including a number of fruits that we had never seen before, e.g., a “monkey orange”, which is a variety of orange with an astoundingly hard rind, almost like a thin coconut shell. The staples included a variety of beans, dried vegetables (such as a spinach “cake”), sardines, dried worm skins, and…wait, what?

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Yes, those are dried worm skins in the front (and no, they do not come in a can of Havoline motor oil). You take a worm, see, and squoosh out its guts like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Then you dry the remaining skin in the sun, creating (in effect) worm jerky. When you’re hankering for a snack, you put it in water to rehydrate it, then pan fry it with salt. It has a mild taste (yes, I ate several), slightly chewy and a little salty. I mean, come on, you pan fry and salt pretty much anything and it’ll be perfectly palatable, right? Stop making that face.

Our final stop of the day was the Penduka Women’s Collective, a combination school (for children of both sexes), restaurant, and craft center, where local women produce pottery, batik, and bead jewelry for public sale.

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The women make their own glass beads individually, starting with empty bottles, which they pulverize and take through an elaborate and very hand labor intensive process. We were served lunch, and as part of our visit were presented with some traditional dances by some of the women.

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And that was our whirlwind day in Windhoek. Tomorrow we fly in small planes to our desert camp in Kulula, there to behold a whole lot of sand — notably the Namib Desert’s famous dunes — and, I hope, a spectacular night sky. I expect that we will be altogether off the grid for the next several days, so I will resume posting when connectivity allows.

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

Kauai? Because I Said So, That’s Kauai!

(Stop groaning. If our flight here had been canceled then the title of this post would have been “Kauai? Kauai Not!”)

Hawaii is on the move, as you may know. The entire chain sits on a continental plate that is sliding in a northwesterly direction over a “hot spot”, a magma plume in the Earth’s mantle, racing towards Japan at the breakneck speed of about 3″ (8 cm) per year.  (I would suggest that the entire archipelago is fleeing the results of the presidential election, but it has actually been going on for a lot longer than that.) The underlying magma plume is actually the very source of the islands, each in its turn having been born as a volcano over the hot spot. And indeed, the next island in the chain has already been spotted in its expected location, southeast of the Big Island, still in the form of an underwater volcano. It even has a name — Loihi — so if you’re a canny real estate investor you want to get in on the ground floor of some great beachfront property in half a million years or so.

The major Hawaiian islands average roughly 80 miles (130 km) apart. Moving at 3″ a year over the hot spot, do the math and you’d expect each island to be roughly a million and half years older than its neighbor to the southeast. And you’d be right: the Big Island is about a million years old; Kauai, which is four islands and 315 miles (500 km) away, about 5 million.

I mention all this geology because it explains the important differences in appearance between Kauai and the Big Island, i.e. the islands appear to be eroding “in reverse”. Back on the mainland, young mountain ranges like the Rockies are all sharp and craggy; as they age they are eroded down into more gentle slopes like the Appalachians. But the Hawaiian Islands are different: unlike the granite Rockies or Alps, they are made of comparatively soft basaltic lava. Since lava is more or less liquid, the young Hawaiian islands, e.g. the Big Island are smooth with gentle slopes; the wind, rain, and sea gradually chip away at the lava like aeolian parrotfish gnawing on coral, sculpting it into rough craggy shapes. So where the Big Island has the smooth slopes of Mauna Kea, Kauai has the angular, crenelated Na Pali Coast:

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…and vistas like this:

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That’s taro growing in the foreground, by the way, the stuff from which poi, that famous Hawaiian staple, is made. It looks and tastes like library paste. If you visit the islands, eating poi is an experience that is definitely to be missed. And no, I did not unintentionally leave out the word “not” in that last sentence.

For similar reasons, the very sand and soil of Kauai differ markedly from the Big Island. On the Big Island they are basically crushed lava, black and granular. On Kauai the elements and plant life have had more time to do their work: sand and soil are finer, and rather orange in color from the high iron content. And very, very fertile: Kauai is nothing if not green.

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We arrived early yesterday afternoon and will be here for a week. However, I confess that we made something of a tactical error in choosing where to stay. Kauai is small and oval in shape, about 33 miles (53 km) wide by 25 miles (40 km) from north to south. There’s basically only a single main road, one or two lanes in each direction,  encircling the island… except that it doesn’t actually encircle it. There’s a chunk missing in the northwest corner where the Na Pali coast is in the way, so if you’re staying on the north side of the island and you need to get somewhere in the southwest, you basically have to drive 3/4 of the way around. This is happening to us.

The southern and southeastern parts of the island is — with the exception of the Na Pali coast itself — where a large fraction of the island’s activities take place: snorkeling, sailing, and such. That is especially so in the winter, since the surf on the northern shores is especially rough at this time of year. The other times that I have been here have always involved staying near the town of Poipu in the southeast; Alice and I decided to do something different this time and stay up north, near the town of Princeville, a rather more lush and wild area that is closer to Na Pali and home to a lot of the island’s very upscale resorts (i.e., places that are too rich for our taste and bank account). But precisely because the north shore is so rough in winter, a lot of our planned activities are going to involve 1-2 drives. Oh well.

The north does enjoy the most beautiful beaches on the island — pity that we’ll die if we actually use them, since their surf these days is up to nearly 20 ft, which is a damn big wave. At least we can look at them before driving an hour if we want to go snorkeling. One of the most beautiful beaches is at Hanalei Bay, fronted by a tiny town of the same name that consists of 500 residents and a couple of locally-themed strip malls with restaurants and souvenir shops.  A lot of movies have been filmed at Hanalei because of the spectacular beach, and it is a popular legend that the name of the town was the inspiration for “a land called Honalee” in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”. There is alas no actual evidence for this whatever. (Feel free to pass it on as an “alternative fact”, though.)

As you can tell from the above photos, the weather today was mostly overcast, though we did get sun in the afternoon. As you might expect on a small tropical islands, conditions can change dramatically with very little notice, though only up to a point: the north shore is relaiably rough in the winter, and the sailing and diving tour operators shut down their operations on this part of the island during the winter months. But the Na Pali coast is still accessible on foot and can be viewed from the sea; we hiked about a half mile into it (and up it) this afternoon to get the topmost photo and this one:

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The white surf in that image tells you everything you need to know about the desirability of going into the water. The hike up to this point was real work, a steep and treacherous stone, mud, and tangled-root path whose reward was these vistas and a gale-force wind at the top. How windy was it? While I was taking these photos the wind blew every hair clip out of Alice’s hair. That’s how windy it was. Oh, and here are the signs at the trailhead welcoming you to this particular undertaking. “Have fun! You’re going to die!”

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Roads on this part of the island are scenic and a little too exciting, being narrow and frequently punctuated with hairpin turns overlooking green cliffs. (This is especially fun at night, there being no street lights or towns to provide even a ghost of illumination.) There are a number of one-lane bridges over small rivers; the local convention, when there is a line of traffic in both directions, is for about a half dozen cars from one side to go, then switch to the other. I accidentally transgressed this tradition at a somewhat confusing juncture that had two consecutive bridges separated by a tight turn: two consecutive drivers coming from the oncoming direction informed me of my error in terms that very definitely lacked the Aloha Spirit.

But what northern Kauai lacks in infrastructure it makes up in local charm in a glorious setting, e.g, this farmer’s market where we bought local fruit, nuts, and other goodies:

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Our B&B certainly has its own share of atmosphere. It is called “Asia House”, a rather incongruous pagoda-like residence in the midst of a spectacularly-manicured upscale golf resort community. It is the residence of a cheery unconventional couple who I’d guess to be in their 60’s: short and portly Coral, an artist who makes jewelry, and her husband Ian, a tall and lanky Scot who designed the place. They have quarters for two sets of guests but most of the house is their residence. I’ll post some photos of the place later if I get a chance.

We are hoping that the changeable weather is not too changeable, since we are scheduled for a helicopter tour of the island tomorrow afternoon. If that comes off, you’ll see the pictures here.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

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That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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

Manta Rays

The snorkeling and scuba diving in Hawaii are justifiably famous, and certainly one of the more spectacular and surreal experiences that one can have here is diving among the manta rays. The Kona coast of the Big Island is home to a large colony (or pod, or flock, or school, or whatever the collective noun is) of 230 mantas. How do they know that it is precisely 230? Because mantas, like many animals, have unique patterns of spots that are as distinct as fingerprints and which thus allow them to be individually identified and counted.

Mantas are big. Even a small adult will be 8′ (2.5m) across, wingtip to wingtip, and the largest in the Kona colony is twice that. She (and I am presuming that the people who named her could somehow identify the sex) is aptly named Big Bertha. Pelagic (deep ocean) ones run even larger, up to 22′ (7m) in size.

Despite their rather intimidating appearance, mantas are gentle and feed primarily on plankton, scooping it into their prodigious maw — the size of an open window — as they glide balletically along. That makes it easy to find the creatures: just shine a light to attract the plankton, and the mantas will follow. The various dive operators are well aware of this, of course, and have strategically placed some spotlights on the ocean floor at a depth of 45′ (14m) in an area whose conditions are particularly rich in plankton. The result is an easy dive where, equipped with underwater flashlights, we merely have to descend straight down and sit on the ocean floor in the vicinity of the spotlights, rather like assembling around an underwater campfire. And the result is this:

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That’s me in the lower left of each image. It is a remarkably alien experience to having these things gliding around you, particular when they are coming head on: you can see the full length of their body interior, their rib cage framing what seems to be a huge but somehow hollow organism. (You can see the effect in the middle image.) They swoop, they glide, they perform underwater loop-the-loops, they even brush against us. We even saw Big Bertha herself, so large that when she flapped her wings in our vicinity we could feel the pressure wave knocking us off balance from our perches adjacent to a rock outcropping.

We stayed on the bottom for 50 minutes, close to the maximum allowable time at that depth without requiring decompression. But we could have watched them for hours.

Back on land a day later, we engaged in more pedestrian and terrestrial activities, as our son and daughter-in-law left us to return home (and we were sad to see them go) and our next round of visitors, our good friends Laura and David, arrived. One of our first stops with them was the Kona farmer’s market, a wonderful venue not only for learning about (and buying, and eating) the local produce — lilikoi, kumquats, apple bananas, rambutans, mangos — but also seeing the the wonderful ethnic mix of this place, e.g.:

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We’ve been away from home for two weeks today and are already fretting that we have to go back in less than a month. I do not expect any sympathy.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alice, still hungry.

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One could persuasively argue that poi = taro hummus.

And this was breakfast, mind you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

The Turbanator

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

No starch, please.

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

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

Mokhtar the Enthusiastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thumper brings home the bacon, or rather apples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To the moon, Achmad!”

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

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

 

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

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

Now THAT’S a turban.

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

Without question, my new Facebook profile picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

Long day today and an early wakeup tomorrow for the long trip across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, so this post is likely to be longer on pictures than the usual mordant commentary. And because it is late I am probably not going to be doing a whole lot of proofreading,  so be prepared to endure a heavier than usual dose of Autocorrrect Surrealism.

Before I begin, though, I need to correct an error in yesterday’s post that Alice discovered. It appears that I killed off Moulay Ismail’s imprisoned architect for the wrong reason. He was executed not because he claimed he could build a greater-than-12,000-horse stable, but rather because he said he could build a better city gate. So now I have set the record straight, not that this helps him.

I also want to make a retroactive addition to yesterday’s narrative, because we had a very interesting encounter in the hills that I forgot to mention. I did say that a number of farmers make a hardscrabble, living coaxing olives and hazelnuts out of the brown  hillsides, but I neglected to mention that snails were also on the menu; the Moroccans inherited that particular culinary quirk from the French, and also consider them aphrodisiac for God knows what reason. So bags of snails nagging by roadside stands is a strangely common site, like this:

I also neglected to mention that a conversation with one of the roadside farmers led to an invitation to walk down the steep dirt path to his home for a visit; he lived with his mother in a small cluster of one-room buildings, very dusky and a little primitive inside but not altogether crude: he had a two-burner propane stove, well water, and electricity. He also had a wife, who had decamped to Spain because, well, it was nicer there. He was saving up money to join her, but in the meantime his companion and farm hand was Mom, whom you see here. She had been married off at 12 years old and had three children besides our hazelnut farmer. The two of them were very gracious to us.

I mentioned that we visited Momo’s apartment and met his family, and told you that his wife Amal had prepared a sumptuous snack table for us. I wanted to include a photo of said pastry extravaganza but had trouble uploading the image, which I hereby offer for your enjoyment. The incidence of diabetes in this country is very high, which is no mystery whatever. Moroccans love their cakes and cookies and are diabetically good at producing them.

 

I also tried to convey a sense of our centuries-old riad, and described how the owner greeted us in the atrium and told us about the history of the place. Here is a photo of that scene. It in no way resembles a Holiday Inn. Our room is on the top floor, and directly above us is a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city.

Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, and because it sits among the hills there are a few places — not just our riad rooftop, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of it. Here is one taken from across town.

If you were able to zoom sufficiently far into this picture one of the things that would strike you is that every, and I do mean every, home has a satellite TV dish on the roof. The paraboloids are so ubiquitous that they are sardonically referred to as Moroccan Mushrooms. I found their ubiquity a little odd: with such rampant poverty, how is it that everyone can afford satellite TV? The answer, explained to me by our local guide, lay in a factoid that I offered a few days ago, namely that Morocco has no intellectual property laws. That means that any enterprising electronics technician with a grounding in cable box encryption and a touch of piratical larceny in his heart can build a bootleg cable box that can receive and decide the satellite signal, and sell said box for a couple hundred dollars. That may sound like a lot but it’s a one-shot deal: you save up your dirhams until you can buy one of those bootleg set-top boxes, and you are set forever: 1200 channels and no monthly subscription fees, forever. And that explains why those dishes are everywhere.

Armed with that particular useless bit of knowledge (useless to us, but very handy for the locals), we set out for our day tour of Fez. The city really has three parts: the medina in the old city, which dates from the 9th century (that is really old, people!); the so called New City, which is a still-wet-behind-the-ears 700 years old; and an actual modern downtown area. Our first stop was the Ibn Danan synagogue (there is one other) in the so-called mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the New City. It is small and no longer functioning as a place of worship, maintained instead for historical purposes through various grants. Here is our local guide, the very articulate Hisham, showing us the Torah scroll. (The scroll, though real, is no longer consecrated and cannot be used in an actual service.)

I assume that there is some kind of selection effect at work since we are an American tour group (despite my being the only Jew in it) but I continue to be bemused by the astronomically disproportionate frequency with which the Jews pop up in our tour guide’s expositions and in our sightseeing. It seems like we are constantly hearing about one  or another Jewish quarter, or synagogue, or historical personage, or edict, or what have you, such that an uninformed tourist might reasonably conclude that Jews make up about 10% of Morocco’s population instead of the actual 0.008%. Strange. And it is also a result of this phenomenon that every time something about Morocco’s Jews gets mentioned, everybody instinctively turns to me for more information as though I were somehow automatically imbued with this knowledge by virtue of having been Bar Mitzvahed 49 years ago. (News flash: I wasn’t.)

Anyway, having satisfied our daily Moroccan Jewish History quota, we moved on to a pottery collective. It is a collective created for the purpose of preserving the craft, which used to be handed down from father to son but is now threatened by globalization, the figurative sons now being more interested in more 21st century pursuits. Here is one of the potters at work:

There were a lot of beautiful things been made, and of course being sold: tile tables and fountains, and all manner of pottery even including — wait for it — mezuzahs. (For non-Jewish readers, that is the usually oblong religious talisman placed on the doorframe at the entrance to Jewish homes.) We were walked through the grounds watching men of various ages mix clay, fire pots, lay out tile mosaics, etc.; women were employed only in the pottery painting stage. At the end of the tour we were inevitably led to the gifts shop, which I will grudgingly respect for having high quality stuff. Our credit card balance did not escape the gift shop unscathed.

From there we moved into the Old City, dominated by the medina. Like the other medinas and souks we have visited, this one was a crush of humanity and an assault on the senses, this one even more so that the others because of its partially ceilinged and thus more claustrophobic quarters. Its size distinguishes it as well: we were told that there were 62 miles of streets (!) and that if we became separated from the group that we should not wander around to try and find our guide, but rather should stand still and wait for him to backtrack to us. Otherwise the risk was that one would end up wandering the maze forever, lost in sensory overload until eventually giving up and opening a bakery. Anyway, here are some scenes of the medina. First, the crowd itself:

And that is a wide part of the street. The danger — and I am not kidding here — is that the density of people is so high, and the streets so narrow, that there is an actual risk of being run over by a donkey carrying some merchant’s wares, like these guys carrying tanned animal hides:

And here is a fish merchant. Notice the shark’s head, standing on end at lower right.

And now a butcher. Yes, that huge grotesque thing hanging in the foreground at right is a decapitated camel’s head. Yes, they eat camels. No, we haven’t tried it. The heads make great Christmas presents, though.

As I’ve mentioned before, the medina is a 360-degree assault on all five senses, very alien but oddly exhilarating. But the hubbub is punctuated by unexpected islands of serenity, small quiet mysterious alleys that radiate off the Main Street and force you to wonder who lives their and what they do. I was photographing one of these, all in shades of white and gray, strangely bleached in comparison to the riot of color elsewhere, when a young boy jumped out of nowhere into the frame, grinned at me, and disappeared again. Here he is:

Our meandering a through the medina led us to a leather tannery (and store, of course). The store is at street level, and the owner asked us if we wanted to go upstairs to see the tannery itself, which of course we did. Before marching us up three floors, though, he handed each of us a sprig of fresh spearmint plant without explanation. Its utility became nauseatingly self-evident as we climbed the stairs, the stench of dead meat and ammonia growing unbreathably stronger with each step. Sure enough, by the time we reached the top we were holding the spearmint beneath our noses on every other breath to keep from gagging; we needed it like a scuba diver’s air hose. It was by a very wide and unpleasant margin the worst thing I have ever smelled.

And here’s the punch line: the actual tannery works are at street level behind the building. That is, we were going up to the roof to get AWAY from smell. Variously holding our breath and breathing therough the spearmint leaves, we took our photos looking down on the operation while trying not to imagine what the odor would be like at close range. So here is the view, which I assure you does not remotely convey the experience, for which you should be very, very grateful. In fact, benign words like “smell”, “odor”, and “aroma” are entirely unequal to the descriptive task. “Stench” starts to approach the concept but still falls a long way short; the English language needs some altogether new word to describe the olfactory sensation. Something like “glarrrrghblechomygodgag”, which I admit looks a little Welsh but which is definitely moving in the right direction. See what you can come up with. (I can hardly wait to read the comments section of this post.)

Photos taken, we got the sales pitch back in the store. The leather goods were indeed beautiful and the prices reasonable but by no means negligible. Alice came close to buying a jacket but eventually decided against it, apparently emotionally wounding the salesman to the point of suicidal depression as he followed us out into the street and down the block.

Our final stop before dinner was at a madrasah, which is to say, a religious school. The madrasahs serve as both schools and a sort of community center and are deeply rooted in history. The one we visited dated from the 14th century, spectacularly ornate with calligraphic carvings and geometric colored tiles tesselating every square foot. They were in remarkable condition after 700 years, especially considering that the courtyard is open to the elements at the top. Here we are in the front courtyard:

We ended the day with another home visit, this time to a delightful middle class family living in the modern downtown part of the city. Father was a waited and had to work, and so we had dinner with mother Hadija; her 23 daughter Loubnna (in her second year of medical school); her 22 year old daughter Fatima (studying economics), and her 15 year old son Otman (high school). Their English was pretty good, especially Loubnna’s, though we occasionally fell back on French. They were more than gracious, very warm and welcoming and eager to share their lives with us and ask about ours. We were there for about two hours and enjoyed every minute of it. I took some pictures of them, and they of us, which Fatima wants to share through Facebook. So I guess I am about to become Facebook friends with a 22 year old Moroccan girl. (The 23 year old, Loubnna, says that medical,school keeps her way too busy for Facebook.)

And that was our rather long day. Tomorrow may be even longer, most of it on the us as we head to the desert. I suspect that Internet connectivity may be spotty for the next four or five days, but I’ll do the best I can.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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