Posts Tagged With: valley

Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Snow on the Mountain

One of the many amazing things about the Big Island is its climate diversity. Worldwide, ecologists recognize 14 distinct climate zones; I won’t bore you with all their names but they include things like “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate”, “Hot Semi-Desert”, etc. The point is, that ten of the 14 are found on the Big Island, making it the most climatologically-diverse place on the planet. And so it came to pass that as we drove north and east from Kona to the higher elevations of Kohala, we left behind some of the coastal clouds and most of the tropical vegetation in favor of cloudless windswept grasslands and a stunning view of 14,000 ft Mauna Kea, recently crowned by a snowfall:


This is about a 90 degree panorama; a similar one taken facing in the opposite direction would show Mauna Loa (which, unexpectedly, does not have any snow on it despite being the same height). The bulbous cinder cone at left — the gentle remnant of some ancient lava vent — is a few hundred feet high and is in the foreground; Mauna Kea’s snow-capped peak is 18 miles away in this picture. Here’s a better (and more artistic!) view of the mountain:


Zoom in a little to the left of the summit and you’ll see what brought me to the Big Island in the first place:


(Actually, that’s not technically true. The telescopes that you can see in this image had not yet been built when I was here over 30 years ago, working at a different observatory that is not visible in this photo.) The two identical white domes are the twin telescopes of the Keck Observatory, each 10 m/33 ft (!) in diameter and acting in concert to combine their signals to achieve enormous detail and sensitivity. To the right of the two domes you can make out the gray cylinder of the Subaru Telescope, yet another behemoth whose mirror is 8.2 m/27 ft across. (To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, the telescope I worked at had a 3.8 m/12.5 ft mirror, which was one of the largest in the world at the time.)

Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Why did they name a big telescope after a Japanese car?” Well, it is a Japanese observatory but cars do not enter into it. “Subaru” is the Japanese word for the Pleiades constellation, and both the car and the telescope are named after them. This very likely answers a question that you never thought to ask. (And now that I’ve got your attention, “Mitsubishi” means “three diamonds” — take a look at the car logo. You’re welcome.)

Where was I? Ah, right. Snow. Mauna Kea does not get snow every winter, but when it does the snowfall can range from a dusting to a downright blizzard that can drop a couple of feet of the white stuff with disturbingly little warning. Indeed, the winter before I arrived, two astronomers got caught out by a storm and were stranded in one of the observatories for a few days, burning furniture for warmth and eating an emergency supply of canned goods. (I know them and trust me, they are still dining out on that story.)

Because of the occasional snow, the Big Island advertises itself as the only tropical island in the world where you can ski. This is quite true, but take my word for it: I’m a skier and do not recommend the experience. There is no recreation infrastructure whatsoever: no lifts, no trails, no nothing. You drive to the summit in your four wheel drive, step into your skis, and head downhill in whatever direction seems to have the most snow whilst praying to the Almighty that you do not wipe out and cut yourself to bloody ribbons on the underlying lava rock. Then at the end of your couple hundred yard run, which takes about 30 seconds if you’re lucky, you take off your skis, sling them over your shoulder, and trudge back to the summit on foot. Then you die of a heart attack because nobody in his right mind would schlep up a steep lava-strewn mountainside at 14,000′ altitude while wearing ski boots.

Back to climate zones. As you can see in the photos, the sky was nearly cloudless, the terrain like a prairie. What you cannot see in the photo was the 30 mph wind that made it nearly impossible to point the camera. And so we continued on, and within five minutes were in yet another climate zone, the “Continuously Wet Warm Temperate” that I mentioned earlier, in the town of Waimea at 2500′ elevation. What that meant in practice was a chilly, misting fog and intermittent light drizzle, a rather dramatic contrast to where we had been literally five minutes earlier. The Big island is like this.

Our first destination was lunch and malasadas — especially malasadas — at the locally famous Tex Drive In, which I wrote about in this space a year ago. I am happy to report that the good people there have not lost their touch. Then we moved on to Waipio Valley, a destination that we failed to reach last year because it was closed off due to an outbreak of dengue fever. That particular danger has since abated, and so we drove to the valley’s striking lookout point, the mist and drizzle notwithstanding:


The valley has a sacred history, supposedly the place where Kamehameha met with the war god Kukailimoku in 1780 to be informed of his destiny to unite the islands. At the time it hosted a population of several thousand. Today only about 50 people live there full time, variously farming taro, raising marijuana, or hiding from civilization in general. It’s a stunning setting for any of those activities, bounded by 2000 ft cliffs and dotted with waterfalls, site of many a skinny-dipping party in my salad days. The black sand beach is gorgeous though it can be treacherous with currents.

(One of my beloved activities in those days was to fly a small plane out to the head of the valley, sideslip down to a few hundred feet above the valley floor, and then zoom out to the ocean at treetop level. This was illegal, dangerous, and wonderful. I always wondered whether any of the pakololo (marijuana) growers would shoot at me, but I never found any bullet holes in the fuselage afterwards, so I guess not. Or they were too wasted to aim accurately.)

The only way down into the valley is via a very steep (25% grade), very winding, and very poorly-maintained road. Your choices are walking or four wheel drive, period. As it happens, our rental car on this trip is a Jeep Grand Cherokee that enjoys about 27 different 4WD settings on a control panel slightly less complicated than the Large Hadron Collider. The car’s user manual is — and I swear this is true — 745 pages long. But we all know that no one reads user manuals, so I pressed the 4WD button that said “Auto” and basically drove off the cliff. Amazingly, we got to the bottom in one piece, and drove around for a bit along the mud path that parallels the river. We made for the black sand beach but were eventually stymied by a puddle the size and depth of Lake Champlain that looked too daunting even for our Testosterone-Mobile. There were two young Canadian women hiking past the obstacle at that moment, about to commence the long trudge uphill, so we turned around, picked them up, and drove back up the hillside as they thanked us repeatedly. (As well they might. On the way down we passed a few Japanese families with a small children in tow, heading down into the valley. I can only imagine the scene as they tried to cajole those kids back up the cliffside afterwards. They’re probably still down there, praying for a kindly stranger with a large Jeep.)

We drove home afterwards, back through the fog, back across the windy prairie, overseen by the two giant mountains, back across to our familiar beach and hot weather. So I’ll close with a final view of Waipio, and today’s serene sunset as viewed from our lanai.





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Bargaining for Jewelry and Wives

Hold the pepperoni.

Today was a slower day than most… literally, since we spent a certain portion of it slowly wending our way up a tortuous mountain road to visit a scenic gorge. More on that in a moment, but first a word about Berber Pizza.

We were told upon departure this morning that we would have a mid-morning snack in the form of what Momo described as “Berber Pizza”. Whether or not this is the actual local term I have no idea, but we parked our bus adjacent to a small Berber family compound and were led to a dark smoky outbuilding where one of the family and her son were busy making said pizza, as you can see here. She had prepared a savory filling of meat and spices (coriander, cumin, and the usual repertoire of Moroccan seasonings) and was busy pounding out flat loaves, spreading the filling, folding them over, and inserting them into the poorly-ventilated earthen oven that you see in the photo.

We went outside and sat low stools to be served a batch that had been prepared earlier, along with the required tea. It was tasty, nothing earthshaking, though I would like to report for the record that a much more accurate term for the dish would be Berber Quesadilla.

An interesting part of the encounter was the conversation with the homeowner. We talked about money; the average Moroccan income — which is about what he makes — is around $4000 US per year. Obviously the cost of living is very low here, but even so it is a struggle for many people. The good news is that health insurance only costs $40 US per month.

Then it was on to the locally famous Dadès Gorge, for which visit we ditched the bus in favor of two large vans, the better to navigate the mountain road. The gorge is about 500 feet high, very similar in appearance to the Toudra Gorge that we visited two days ago (and which is only about 15 miles from here).  

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we are once again back in territory that strongly resembles the American Southwest, right down to the architecture. All of the buildings are adobe and have a squared-off appearance; constructed out of local clay, their color matches the hillsides in quite the same way as American pueblos. For this reason the drive, though scenic enough, seemed a little anticlimactic; we felt like we had more or less seen it all before.

Descending from the valley, we returned to the Berber village where we had eaten our non-quesadillas and parked the bus. Adjacent to the parking lot, though, was a jewelry store where Momo gave us (and by “us” I mean the ten women out of our group of 16) time to shop. But, he cautioned, with Berbers you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Take the price they offer, he added, then halve it, and halve it again. Seemed a little extreme, but in we went.

At this point I feel compelled to observe that Alice, despite her many virtues, is uncomfortable with bargaining in much the same way that Dracula is uncomfortable with sunlight. Indeed, in one memorable incident that I have been using to embarrass her for the last ten years, she once bargained a Tijuana jewelry vendor UPWARD from the price he quoted. (I should also remark in context that this woman had a successful career as a mathematican and system engineer at NASA, which just goes to show something, though I am not sure what.) in any case, she declared that I was in charge of bargaining. 

She found two pieces of jewelry that she wanted and I asked her how much she was willing to pay for them, in the sense that she would be willing to walk away if the price was higher than that. She considered this and declared the value of the items to her to be $100 (I will speak in US dollars instead of dirham for convenience). So we got the owner’s attention and asked him for the price. At this point Momo walked over and got in on the bargaining action. The scene played out like this:

Owner: <Speaks rapidly in Arabic>

Momo: <Looks disgusted, says something back, turns to me, and makes a finger-twirling motion at his temple> “He’s crazy. Says he wants $200.”

Me: “I’ll pay $80.”

Owner: (in English) It’s real turquoise and coral. $150.”

Momo: “What? Come on! <puts his arm around me> This man <i.e., me> is my cousin! Give him a break!”

Me: “$90”

Momo: “You heard him! $90! That’s all the money he has in his wallet! Go on, Rich, show him your wallet!”

Me: “Here.” <reaching nervously for my wallet, which holds considerably more than $90>

Momo: “That’s it. $90. Put the items in a bag. Rich! take the bag and go.”

…and that was that. $200 asked, $90 paid, which was $10 below our limit. My father, who loved this sort of thing and was very good at it, would have been proud. Even if Momo did do the heavy lifting. Seriously, my cousin?

Our final stop of the day was lunch and a discussion at the family compound of a local imam. The world being what it is today, the word “imam” evokes mental images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics, at least to many Americans. But Morocco is a very moderate place, and this imam was neither wild-eyed nor bearded and seemed like a real gentle soul. He did not speak English, but served us a very nice lunch and then sat down with us to answer any questions we might have about Islam, with Momo interpreting.

The group had a lot of questions on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Extremism (he described the Islamist fanatics as “criminals” whose activities were highly un-Islamic, and averred that literacy and economic reform were the keys to combatting it); 
  • The attitude of the Moroccan clergy towards the liberalization of family laws and the empowerment of women (he stated that the changes are both welcome and consistent with the Koran); 
  • The Sunni-Shia schism (basically a continuing war of succession following the death of the Prophet Mohammed);
  • How one becomes an imam (various selection criteria including memorization of the Koran and seven years of specialized religious education);
  • What an imam actually does (leading religious services at the mosque, and personal counseling; however most imams in addition to their state salary have day jobs);
  • Sharia law (applied only to matters involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance);
  • ..and circumcision. (They do it, at anywhere from 7 days to 5 years of age depending on circumstances.)

It was quite the discussion, lively and interesting, and the imam was unfailingly patient and thoughtful. I decided to pursue the discussion about mitzvahs that I had had with Momo out in the desert camp two days, and asked a lengthy question about whether Islam had an analogous concept of an act of personal responsibility or good deed without expectation of reward, either now or after death. His answer came at considerable length as well, which I can pretty succinctly boil down to one word: No. Islam is very strongly oriented towards achieving paradise in the hereafter. He elaborated that faith (the first pillar of Sunni Islam’s five pillars) is much more important than deeds, but that ultimately it was all about getting into Paradise. In this respect it seems that Islam more resembles Christianity than Judaism. All in all, an interesting and enlightening chat. We all really liked the guy.

At the conclusion of the conversation we held an ambush Islamic wedding. That is to say, Momo and the imam selected one of the couples in our group, the very outgoing Michie (pronounced “Mickey”) and Tom, and “remarried” them to demonstrate an Islamic ceremony. It was pretty cool, and very charming. (I should also add that Michie was totally in her element here: she’s all about getting involved in things, and in fact was the organizer of 10 of the 16 people in this group. They are all part of her understandably large circle of friends whom she convinced en masse to come along on this trip, which they inevitably dubbed “Michie’s Camel Ride”.)

So. Michie and Tom were first dressed up in full wedding regalia. That’s the imam in the middle (wearing glasses) while Tom waits behind him. Notice the curved knife at Tom’s side… you can’t be too careful at a wedding.

Michie was properly veiled (but you can still see her smiling):

…and after vows are exchanged and the veils lifted (yep, that’s her all right!), the couple sits down with two witnesses (friends Jerry and Betty from the group) to negotiate the marriage contract. Seems to me that that is the sort of thing that one would do rather earlier in the process, but hey, we travel to learn things.

Tom offered as dowry his entire fortune, which he declared to be two camels. Michie demanded five. Tom countered with two camels and two poodles. (Poodles are not a typical Islamic medium of exchange. I gather that there is something involving poodles in Michie and Tom’s history; they have been married 19 years. Or nine hours as I type this, depending on which starting point you choose.)

The contract was written (in Arabic, of course) with a bamboo or wood stylus dipped in ink. Both witnesses signed it, and here it is in progress:

They got to keep the contract and the pen. So here is a final look at the happy couple just prior to their honeymoon, which consisted of getting back on the bus with the rest of us. But we did raise a toast to them at dinner tonight, at a very elaborately decorated and beautiful casbah restaurant.

How do you say “Mazel tov” in Arabic?

Tomorrow: on to Marrakesh. No “Marrakesh Express” jokes, please: we’ve already heard them.


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

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