Posts Tagged With: village

Yesterday, Today, and Damara

We are in Etosha National Park now, back on the grid (barely) after three days in the stark northern Damaraland region, so buckle up: this will be a long post with lots of photos. (And I should confess that the title is not quite as clever as it appears on the page because the accent is actually on the first syllable: DAMara.)

We flew – in formation! – in two small planes from Walvis Bay to Damaraland, through dust-filled skies over harsh Martian terrain reminiscent of Death Valley. In the photo below I had to stretch the contrast in Photoshop till it screamed for mercy, because what it looked like to the naked eye was a vaguely orange fog with no visible features. The sand particles here are so fine that (a) the wind carries them aloft with ease in inconceivable quantities, and (b) everything, and I mean everything, gets ultrafine grit in it, including camera equipment and bodily orifices.

One of the odd side effects of the particulate-laden atmosphere is that the intense sunlight is scattered like crazy, every solar photon getting bounced hither and yon before it reaches the ground. Which in practice means that sky is fully light a solid half hour before dawn. (I was flabbergasted one morning when I awoke to photograph the sunrise and mistakenly thought that I had misread my watch, since it was daylight and I had obviously missed it – only to see a wan orange disk creep over the distant mountains about twenty minutes later.) On the plus side, all that dust acts like a pretty effective UV blocker, so that despite the intense midday sun even I with my generally pasty complexion and vitiligo-mottled hands have not picked up any sunburn.

The wind dies down completely after sunset, however, and the dust partly settles out, which means that other than everything looking rather reddish when close to then horizon, the night sky is spectacular. Here’s the center of our Galaxy, the densest part of the Milky Way, straight overhead at about 9 PM.

That’s a 20 second time exposure, if you’re interested. Here’s another view, looking low on the horizon.

Damaraland has two types of terrain, both of them sandy. Part of it looks like the area around Kulala, i.e. rippled trackless lose sand punctuated by dunes. The more common terrain is packed sand, grey-brown hardpan strewn with sandstone and granite rubble, dotted with stunted acacia and mopane trees. There is a distant low mountain range, the Etendekas, which somply means “flat top”. If this all sounds rather survival-challenged and uninviting, it really comes down to whether you like deserts, which I do. (I could do without the grit in my ears, though.)

Our stay was it the Doro Nawas Lodge, which if you want to be a linguistic stickler should actually be written Doro !Nawas, with an exclamation point at the front of the second word. (Whoa… Microsoft word does not like that, and is complaining to me about it as I type.) It is a click sound, a “tok” made by pulling the tongue off the roof of the mouth as you say the N. There are actually four different click sounds in Damara (and San, the Bushman language), each represented in the Roman alphabet with a different punctuation mark: !, /, //, and ǂ. They sound sort of – emphasis on the sort of — like a tok, and a tcht, and a tsk, and something that I can’t even figure out a combination of letters for, let alone actually say. Even Damara children cannot pronounce them until the age of six or so. When the locals converse it sounds like they are talking while dropping marbles onto hollow wooden blocks.

The lodge appears from the outside like Mad Max’s secret fortress, a low dark wood and stone structure situated commandingly on a hilltop and ringed by cabins lower down the slope.

It is very pleasant, with few interior walls and all open to the outside. Our cabin is beautiful, a full bungalow perhaps 800 square feet (74 square m) in size with both indoor and outdoor showers and an enormous sliding glass door/window nearly 30 ft (9 m) long looking out over the desert towards the south. Everything is made of stone and dark wood like the lodge, and the cathedral ceiling looks straight up onto the underside of the thatched roof and its round rough wood beams (tree trunks, of course).

Damaraland is known for its elephants, so I might as well lay a bunch of elephant photos on you right now before I go all didactic on you.

These are desert elephants, unique to the region and a source of no little controversy. Although taxonomically and genetically identical to the “usual” African elephants, they enjoy some important and easily seen adaptations to desert life. They are noticeably smaller than their more common cousins, for one thing, with much thinner tusks and long skinny legs. (Long and skinny for an elephant, anyway.)

There is considerable controversy surrounding these animals. The national government maintains that there is no important difference between these elephants and the other 20,000 throughout the country, and that there is thus no reason not to sell expensive hunting licenses to wealthy foreigners. At the same time – speaking out of the other side of its institutional face – the selfsame government markets these permits at a premium by maintaining to those wealthy foreigners that the desert elephants are rare and special. Exactly how rare is also a point of dispute: game spotters and NGOs maintain that there are only about 120 of them; the government claims that there are 600. Nine hunting permits have already been sold, all to one wealthy and famous South African hunter Johan Louw. But the outcry over the beasts’ rarity (or not) has inhibited him from actually using them. (Karma is a Bitch Department: Louw was injured by an elephant, and his client killed, by an elephant during a hunting party in a different part of the country several months ago.

The locals have mixed feelings about all this. Elephants bring a lot of tourism to the country, but the government is so corrupt that most of those dollars do not flow down to the grass roots to fund infrastructure, schools, etc. What does happen at the village level is that the elephants destroy things, notably water wells. So the corruption problem is going to have to be alleviated before conservation efforts get the necessary amount of support at the local level.

We visited one of those villages, a Damara farming community where the village elders, who with the entire population of a few hundred, had been relocated to this patch of desert by apartheid policies in 1974.  Here’s the village, which comprises a couple of hundred people, a few goats, and some garden plots. Only one resident is brave enough to raise a garden of substantial size. Why? Well, you know how hard it is to keep pesky deer and rabbits from eating your vegetable garden? And how the bigger the garden, the bigger the problem? Now replace the deer and rabbits with elephants. A chicken-wire fence will not do the job.

You may conclude from the photo above that the village is not the most inviting place to live, and I can state with confidence that if I and my family were forcibly relocated there that we would not survive a week. (“Satya! STAY AWAY FROM THAT ELEPH… oh jeez….”) However, by their own standards the village is doing OK, and the elders at least stated that they were happy there.

They seemed to be receiving a fair amount of government support, in the form of financial subsidies, well boreholes, and even a very rare kindergarten school. This seems to be at least one case where the system is working more or less as it is supposed to, and these two ladies claimed to be very supportive of the desert elephant conservation efforts. (In answer to that question, they responded: “We like the elephants. You’re here because they’re here.”)

In contrast to this village, with real people living their daily hardscrabble lives, we also visited the Damara Living Museum, which if you are an American reading this, you may think of as Naked Colonial Williamsburg. There, local Damara tribespeople don traditional close and demonstrate dances and assorted skills (building a fire, preparing an animal hide, that sort of thing).

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. If I were part of a Jewish congregation making a living by demonstrating bar mitzvahs or seders for tourists I would not be too crazy about it, but Lloyd maintains that these Damara are OK with this, in part because it helps keep the ancient skills and traditions alive. (However, for the record, if I am one of those hypothetical Jewish congregants I am drawing the line at circumcision.)

Relocation aside, desert tribes have lived in this area for a long time. They’ve got the wall art to prove it, in this case petroglyphs on sandstone much as one finds in the American Southwest and in Australia.

Unlike petroglyphs elsewhere, however, these are impossible to date with any certainty. The analogous carvings in the USA and Australia are usually dated by organic or carbon dating analysis of any pigments in the drawings or remains of campfires. But there are no campfire remnants here, nor pigments; they are scratched into the rock. And the utter lack of rainfall means that the carvings erode slowly and unpredictably. As a result, the best that anyone can say is that the petroglyphs are between 2,000 and 6,000, which is an unsatisfyingly wide range.

You can probably infer from the pictures that the geology of this area is very similar to that of the American Southwest, and you’re right. Here is a shot that validates that sense.

The area even boasts a number of petrified forests, both privately and government owned, and they look like, well, petrified forests everywhere. We visited the government-run one, whose centerpiece is a log about 2 ft in diameter and roughly 200 ft (60 m) long, sort of a skinny redwood collapsed onto its side.

Possibly the stars of the local geology are the so-called Organ Pipes, vertical columns of a mélange of minerals, compressed by volcanic pressures into polygonal cross sections.

What this region has that is truly unique, however, is a particular plant, the Welwitschia Mirabilis, a.k.a. the national plant of Namibia. It even appears on the flag.

It’s your typically curious desert plant, that not only requires little water but actually requires it: dump a pitcher of water on it and you’ll kill it. The root system only goes down about a foot or so (30 cm) and is a big bulbous thing for water storage.  It’s very slow growing and long-lived — this one is decades old, the leaves thick and leathery.

We left Damara this morning and, as I type this, have already had a game-rich day in Etosha, further to the north. More about that when I get a chance, but I will leave you with our farewell visitor to our cabin in Doro !Nawas this morning, sitting on a fence post about four feet away from me. I have a nice photo of him, but I think Alice’s little watercolor captures the moment nicely.





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

We Receive Our UNESCO Merit Badge

You know, there probably ought to be an island somewhere where all the people who have vanishing, obsolete, or traditional but obscure skill sets can all live together in peace and harmony. You know: geishas, blacksmiths, slide rule designers, coopers (when’s the last time you had a barrel made?), roof thatchers, that sort of thing. If such a place existed, you can bet that a disproportionate segment of the population would be Japanese. We saw a bunch of them today.

Today’s destinations were all in the UNESCO World Heritage locales of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go and a few of the neighboring towns. They are characterized by a number of attributes: stunning valley settings, gassho farmhouse architecture (which I’ll explain in a moment), and the preservation of what to our philistine Western sensibilities are obscure but colorful arts and crafts. Let’s start with the settings and the architecture.

“Gokayama” means “five mountains”. (Remember that -yama is a suffix meaning “mountain”, as in Fujiyama.) This part of the country is mountainous, which means two things: striking vistas and a lot of snow in winter. Our first stop was the village of Ainokura, a settlement of 1000 people or so nestled in a Shangri-la-like valley (I wish there were some way of typing that without two hyphens) ringed by cloud-misted green peaks. The building roofs are all thatched — very thick thatching, perhaps two feet through, mounted on a steep A-frame with about a 60-degree cant to prevent snow accumulation. And that, gentle reader, is more or less the definition of gassho architecture. The word itself means “praying hands”, which more or less describes the shape of the roof. There are a couple of things to pray for, e.g., that the village won’t get six feet of snow again this winter, because, tradition or no tradition the locals are sick of shoveling the stuff. The residents might also pray that no moronic tourist lights up a cigarette, since a wood frame house with a thatched roof is a conflagration waiting to happen. All of the houses in Ainokura are like this, giving it the feel of a 16th century Colonial Williamsburg. (And the brochures and signs do indeed ask you not to smoke.) We enjoyed a woodcut-worthy photogenic overlook of the town, and ambled around the streets for a while.


Our next stop was the village of Taira, where they, um, pound rice. Not quite sure how else to describe it, really. The desired end product is mochi, or Japanese rice cake. “Cake” hardly seems like the right word, though: mochi is a essentially a little ball of rice gluten, which you can flavor by rolling it in a little sugar and soy powder or dipping it in soy. It’s gummy, sort of like an edible ball of doughy Silly Putty, though gooier and much easier to chew. It’s considered a special treat because making it in the proper fashion is labor-intensive: one person repeatedly pounds a bucket full of rice with a wooden sledgehammer while a second reaches into the goo between hammer strokes to add a bit of water and do a very quick knead. Time it wrong and the second person is looking at five broken fingers. (I asked Mariko how often this occurs among practitioners; she translated the question and was informed that it never happens.  However that is only because I don’t attempt to make mochi; otherwise the local hospital would have to hire a new full-time doctor just to apply splints.)


Like everything else in Japan, mochi is steeped in tradition. You can’t just whale away with your Sears Craftsman hammer into a bowl of Uncle Ben’s Rice. You need just the right kind of rice, soaked for the right amount of time, pounded with the right wooden sledgehammer, and so forth. It’s all very traditional and precise, though the end product is very enjoyable. (At least for me; Alice was not so crazy about it.)

This ethos of doing things just so, using the ancient ways, is certainly a core part of Japanese tradition. We saw it again a few minutes later just down the road, where we made “Gokayama Mashi” paper. Or so they told us; would be more accurate to say that we participated in the final two steps (out of about 20) of making the much-prized, high-fiber paper. A traditional plant must be harvested, and the wrong kind of fibers removed, then boiled, and have other stuff added to it, then this, then that, then something else, and if I remember the informational video correctly then about two months later you have a sheet of very nice paper indeed, which you damn well better use for something important.

Our role in the process was to repeatedly dip a small screen about the size of a dinner tray into a trough of white liquid fibrous pulp, rather like rice pudding. You dip the screen into the pulp in a scooping motion to avoid trapping air bubbles, then lift it out and hold it horizontally to let the water drain. Repeat two more times. Decorate with colorful cutout bits of paper: cats, moons, fish. Hand the screen to a guy who carefully peels out the wet paper-to-be and sticks it flat against a hot drying surface, which is just a vertical panel of heated sheet metal. Twenty minutes later you have a sheet of paper with your decorations embedded in it.



We moved on to a traditional lunch (do you sense a pattern emerging?), “tradition” in this case being an unusual vegetarian lunch of what of what are called “mountain vegetables”, which included items like fiddlehead fern. It was interesting, not at all bad, and a source of nostalgia for Mariko, who remembers her grandmother going into the mountains to gather vegetables for such a meal. Now it’s uncommon; it is hard to find the ingredients in a supermarket, and they are quite expensive.

Lunch concluded with a musical interlude. Two of the ladies who staffed the restaurant did a simple traditional dance while playing the binzasara, a bizarre percussion instrument that is basically a row of clappers strung tightly together.   You hold the two ends and snap your wrist, which causes a wave to propagate down the row of clappers, like tightly-spaced dominoes falling. It makes a clattery buzzing sound, indeed rather like what you’d get if you recorded a bunch of falling dominoes and then played back the audio at high speed. We all tried it; it’s a little tricky but you get the hang of it quickly. The instrument is a big deal around here: as you drive into this village of Taira, you pass under an archway shaped like one.


I am happy to report that we were able to answer this particular Japanese musical tradition with an American musical tradition. Joe, one of our travel group, is a “sonic afficionado”, if there is such a term, who delights in whistling, making sound effects, and generally utilizing whatever is at hand (e.g., a blades of grass) to make noise. He travels with a pocket harmonica at all times — a practice that I recommend on philosophical grounds — and so responded to the binzasara performance by standing up and playing a long, impressive blues piece on his harmonica. It was quite a performance and he brought down the house. (I had told him earlier that I was planning on sending him a USB stick with all my photos; he said that in return he would send me one of his harmonica instructional videos. Seems like a very fair trade.)

We had two more stops to make after lunch, but i will be brief since it is getting late and this post is already somewhat longer than average. The first was the 500-year old home of the Iwase family, who have occupied it for 18 generations. The house dates back to the samurai era and has variously been used to store gunpowder, silk, and other commodities. I’m not sure if it is technically in the gassho style since the roof is not as steeply tilted as the other buildings. But the thatching was thick and robustly bound to heavy circular beams on the upper floors. Now the is just a family home, but the Iwases use it to (you guessed it) keep some of the old traditions alive, notably the kokiriko dance.

shirakawa-007 shirakawa-005

Kokiriko is the oldest traditional Japanese dance, accompanied by a binzasara and percussion sticks. Though performed by women now, it was originally a dance performed only by the nobles and was used to celebrate the hunt. The costumes are said to be silk versions of a hunting outfit; I infer that the role of the hat (see photo above!) was to facilitate the hunt by making the animals convulse with derisive laughter. (“Look at that stupid hat!  You can’t even see anyth…OUCH ARROWS! OUCHouchouchouch…”) The Iwases served us tea after the dance, and we explored the house for a while.


Our final stop of the day was Shirakawa-go itself, essentially a larger and more touristy version of the village of Ainokura that we saw first thing this morning. Like Ainokura, it sits serenely yet strikingly in a valley dotted with rice paddies and ringed with mountains. We admired the view, walked down into the town, then headed back to Kanazawa for a decidedly non-traditional Japanese dinner: Chinese food

shirakawa-012 shirakawa-008 shirakawa-009 shirakawa-010.Thus concludes our stay in Kanazawa. Tomorrow we head off to Kyoto for five nights, the final leg of our trip.



Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Escape to Tineghir, Hours Ahead of a Sandstorm

(This is a repost of an entry prematurely posted and titled “TBD” due to a flaky internet connection.)

My postscript in yesterday’s post described a rising wind and some rain. The rain passed, but the wind blew off most of the clouds and left us with a glorious night sky, two photos of which I offer you here. The first shows the constellation of Sagittarius in the middle, and you can see the Milky Way extending up out of the dunes; the orange glow is from another camp. The second photo is looking west, and shows the stars above the lit tents.

The wind continued to rise through the night, and few of us got much sleep, both from the racket and from the continuous influx of fine sand into our tents, driven through our screens by the wind. All four of our canvas walls bowed inwards as the near-gale tried to collapse our tents, and by the middle of the night both ourselves and all our possessions were coated with the finest grit. Have you ever tried to sleep while sand was blowing into your mouth? 

It did grace us with a much more colorful sunrise than we had had the previous day, and our camp had acquired two new features: a Berber child who had appeared out of the dunes during the wee hours and positioned herself on the sandy “avenue” between our two facing rows of tents, and a new layer of sand, complete with tiny dunes, in that same space. So here was the view, at about 7:15 AM.


What these shots do not show was that the wind was still full force, driving the fine sand everywhere, and making it very uncomfortable to be outside. We had breakfast in the mess tent, loaded up the 4 x 4s, and got the hell out of there.

Not a moment too soon, as it turns out. The wind continued to rise and, we learned some hours later, had risen to gale force and birthed a full-blown sandstorm that completely cut off the camp and forced its closure. Had our departure been delayed by as little as two hours we would have been “sanded in” (as opposed to “snowed in”, right?). This may sound very romantic and exciting to you, and probably would be too, for about 20 minutes. But based on our small taste of it in the morning and last night I can guarantee you that it would quickly have turned into an Extremely Not Fun experience, and not without actual danger.

But we did not get sanded in, and we hotdogged out of camp across the dunes and bounced across the hard packed desert to retrace our route back to Erfoud to join the highway westward. As we approached the outskirts of town we encountered a date market — this is date harvest season — so we made a short unscheduled stop and wandered among the farmers as Momo pointed out the various kinds of dates and the prices they would bring. (Top quality Medjool dates go for about $5 a pound here at the market, much more by the time you buy them at retail.)

“I’ve got dates for sale!” “I’ve got dates for sale too!” “Jeez, is there anybody here who’s NOT selling dates?”

“So this girl said, ‘Want lots of dates?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ and, well, turns out that we were talking about two different things, so here I am.”

Our destination today was the town of Tineghir, about 80 miles to the west of our desert camp. We stopped for lunch at about the halfway point, in the town of Ksar el Khorbat. “Ksar” means “village”, and within the town was an old walled village where the locals have created a sort of crafts commune for lwomen to make goods for sale, as well as a small museum showing the history of the place. This is a Berber region, and so it has a fairly complex ethnic heritage that includes an admixture of Jews (all of whom are now gone). The relationship between the locals with the town Jews was convincingly illustrated by a display of a stockade with inward-pointing nails around the inside of the wrist and neck holes.

A little outside of town, we passed a hillside with gigantic words painted on the side above a green star, the country’s emblem. The words, in Arabic, said “God, Country, King”, which is the motto of the Moroccan army and is intended to reflect their priorities in decreasing order. One of the locals got a little crosswise with this slogan, however, and paid a price. Ksar el Khorbat has a strong Spanish heritage and in particular identify strongly with the Catalan region. A local soccer enthusiastic got a little too gung-ho about his favorite Spanish soccer team and spray-painted “God, Country, Barcelona”, for which cleverness he went to jail. Moroccans enjoy a pretty healthy freedom of speech, but they draw the line at lèse majeste: you absolutely cannot diss the king, which includes implying that the Barcelona soccer team is more important to you than Hassan II.

As approached Tineghir, we encountered yet another indication that we are far from home. Here it is:

You think hitting a deer with your car is bad, try running into a camel.

Tineghir is known for a number of things, one being an old part of the city that is built from Adobe and clay from the adjacent mountainsides and thus blends into the mountain with a rather New World pueblo look, as you can see below. (Alice and I both observed that it also looks like the setting of any number of our video games.)

It is also known for the scenic Torda Gorge, a narrow canyon with a shallow river running through it, flanked by towering cliffs something like 500 feet high. We walked a few hundred yards through it, ogled the view, then boarded the bus back to the hotel.

Our hotel overlooks the “new city”, which looks like this: 

It’s pretty completely urbanized and of modest size. Our hotel is comfortable and generally unremarkable, save for two things, one being a very unreliable wifi connection (which is why you may have received this post out of order), and the other being food whose taste has been meticulously and thoroughly drained away prior to serving it. We’re not sure how this is even possible, but we may know the “why”, which is that the hotel’s clientele include a large number of Germans, for whom the concept of actual flavor in food is highly alien. Thumper complained to Momo, who was also unhappy with it for the same reason and so confronted the manager about it. The manager did not look happy and we can only speculate about what actually got said; to the non-Arab-speaking listener, even a friendly Arabic conversation is so loud and intense as to be indistinguishable from an exchange of death threats. I fully expect our breakfast tomorrow to be laced with some exotic local poison, part of our immersive experience.


Assuming we survive and the wifi stays up, you’ll hear about our “day in the life of Tineghir” tomorrow.

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

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

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Lauding Este

Most of our activity ­thus far has been in cities: Venice, Vicenza, Padua, et al. It has been our plan to see some of the countryside as well, and yesterday seemed like a good day to do it; the weather was overcast, and Alice is still fighting a cold and so was disinclined to do a lot of walking.  So a drive in the country seemed like a fine thing, and we set off to the outer reaches of Vicenza province, to the Euganean Hills.

The hills are low, perhaps 2000’ high at the highest, a collection of heavily wooded granite cliffs and old (very old: 35 million years) volcanic cinder cones, crisscrossed by hiking trails and traversed by a tortuous network of scenic if white-knuckled narrow hairpin turns that make driving something of a video game experience. I have been doing all of the driving thus far – Alice is too good a navigator to risk switching roles – and so found myself simultaneously trying to admire the view whilst maintaining laser focus on the next 180o turn in order to avoid driving us straight down one of those scenic, heavily wooded cliff sides.

The vistas are much as you would imagine, wide expanses of farmland (vineyards, of course) punctuated by villages of orange-tiled roofs, each of course with a bell tower. The overcast rendered the scene a little hazy, which added some nice atmospherics (and moderated the temperature), at the cost of making decent photography pretty much impossible.

After descending the sinuous road down the hillside, we stopped at the town of Este, a village really, whose principal attraction is a very large castle in the center of town.


Its grounds offer a garden, statuary, and general strolling and meeting places for the local population, including this bicycle club:


Notice the purple wisteria on the battlement walls. It is everywhere in the region, festooning stone and stucco walls alike and adding a splash of color to seemingly every structure. And speaking of adding a splash of color, here is Alice:


But I am getting slightly ahead of myself by an hour or so. When we first rolled into town we were in need of two things: food and a bathroom. But we apparently arrived shortly after the Zombie Apocalypse. We cruised slowly down the deserted narrow streets, not a person or car in sight, trying to find an open restaurant or business of any sort or, indeed, any reassurance that the Rapture had not been visited upon the region whilst we sinners were up driving in the hills.

As the complaints from our stomachs and bladders grew more insistent, we finally in desperation turned through a metal gate into a small deserted courtyard that promised an open restaurant, only to find ourselves cruelly deceived. A decision was needed. Food was not a problem, as we had bought along an ample supply of cheese, fruit, crackers, and other goodies obtained on a supermarket run a few days ago. As for our bladders, well, I said the courtyard was deserted, so I’ll leave it at that.

It turns out that yesterday was Italy Liberation Day, whose particulars I will have to Google later. (I am in our B&B castle, sans Internet, as I type this.) But it is apparently celebrated by staying indoors. When we first arrived at the castle after eating, the courtyard was pretty sparsely peopled.


Things came to life considerably by mid-afternoon, however. We walked around the grounds, climbing the steps up to the parapets to get a commanding view of the town below.



It didn’t much more than an hour or two to see what there is to see at Este’s castle, and Elaine expressed a desire to do some hiking back up in the hills. She had picked up some brochures and maps identifying some hikes that promised to be both easy and scenic, and so we drove a short 10 miles or so to the Euganean hillside town of Teolo, which is sort of the epicenter for activities in the hills. It is heavily visited and was alive with picnickers, hikers, and bikers (both motor- and not) as we drove up.

(A word about the bicyclists. There are lots of them in the hills, often in groups, sometimes with helmets but frequently without. They all wear spandex, and they all work very, very hard. These roads are steep and twisty with barely a level stretch to be found anywhere, and although I enjoy biking I cannot imagine lasting more than five minutes in this terrain.)

Alice was still suffering from her cold, and Jim was feeling too relaxed to spoil the mood with any physical work, and so Elaine and I set out on the alleged easy, scenic trail, which turned out to be neither. It was in fact steep and occasionally rugged, the ostensible scenic panoramas obscured by the mountain on one side of the trail and the forest on the other. We gave it up as a bad job after 40 minutes or so, then turned around to rejoin our spouses at the trailhead.

We took an actual scenic drive back to Vicenza, Alice navigating us through the hills rather than on the Autostrade, and our last stop of the day was a church courtyard on the hillside overlooking the city that afforded these views:

Vicenza Overlook-1

That’s Palladio’s basilica with the green roof, right in the center of town.

Vicenza Overlook-2

These give a pretty sense of the ambience of Vicenza, just in time for us to leave it. We retreat from our private castle today, and at this moment I hear the clangor of the village church bells just outside our private hillside castle, as every local dog howls in protest. In an hour or two as I type this, we head northwest towards the mountains for two days on the shore of Lake Garda. The weather is looking none too promising but, well, it’s all about the journey.

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Vaporetto to the Ghetto, and Moving on from Venice

Venice-etal-1We had grand plans for Sunday the 19th involving Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, but we overslept and, though we ended up walking arund the ghetto and visiting the Jewish Museum, we had some time constraints that prevented us from taking the tour of the ghetto’s five synagogues. (Photo taken in the staircase inside the museum.)

Venice’s Jewish ghetto has the dubious distinction of being the original Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish population was isolated in 1516 by order of the Doge (it was either that or leave the city altogether), and they were moved to an undesirable area near the edge of the city at the site of a foundry. The Italian word for “foundry” is geto, pronounced like “jetto”, but later German immigrants pronounced it with a hard G since the German language has no soft G. And so the modern word was born.  It’s a remarkably small space, basically a single square with two narrow streets radiating off it. Two of the synagogues are located on the square and the other three on the side streets.

Although World War II-era Pope Pius XII has come in for considerable criticism for what many see as a laissez faire attitude towards the Nazis, Italy did better than most occupied countries when it came to protecting their Jews. They managed to ship off almost none at all until 1943, when Germany invaded and occupied northern Italy after Mussolini figured out who was actually going to win the war and switched sides. It was in late 1943 that the deportations started: 8000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and eight came back. Even so, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war.

Today, despite the presence of several kosher restaurants, the ghetto is home to approximately zero Jews and — but for the synagogues themselves — is more tourist destination than religious enclave. We toured the museum, and as we were about to leave the square I passed a young (about 30 years old) Hasid — beard, flat hat, black coat, the whole deal — who bade me “shalom“. So I “shalomed” back, and we fell into conversation. He said, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes, and I’m guessing that you are too.” He was Australian, visiting Italy for a month including the recent Passover holiday. So I said, “chag samayach” (“happy holiday” in Hebrew, to my Gentile readers), at which moment I became a marked man. He spent the next several minutes trying to inveigle me into accompanying him to the synagogue to don the tefillin, which are the leather phylacteries worn by orthodox Jews, and it’s all very complicated so just click the damn link on the word “tefillin” to get the full explanation. Suffice it to say that I had not done this since I was 13 years old and was not about to do it now, because (a) I had absolutely no memory of the required prayers; and (b) also had no memory of the appropriate details for winding the leather straps and would in all likelihood have ended up strangling myself. It would not have been a salutary experience for either of us, so I begged off.

Our traveling companions Jim and Elaine arrived from Trieste that afternoon (hence our time constraint); we had flown over with them but they started their sojourn in that city and we were now meeting up again to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks together. Our first joint stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. The heiress was quite the force in the art world in the 1940’s — a major patron and collector — and amassed a large collection of contemporary art here in Venice. Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack, all the biggies form that era. Her grave is on the grounds of the museum, rather oddly surrounded by the graves of her 14 “babies”. One is shocked that she had so many children — all of whom died — until a closer reading of the headstone reveals that (a) they all died between the ages of 5 and 14, and (b) they all had names like “Sir Herbert” and “King Kong”, “Peacock”, and “Cappucino”. Dogs. Lhasa apsos, to be exact. Sheesh.

The weather had improved considerably over the chilly rain we had had the previous two days; the day was sunny though the night was still brisk. It seemed like a good opportunity to take the vaporetto around to St. Mark’s Square to watch the crowd and get some night shots, e.g.:

Venice-etal-3 Venice-etal-2

One of the curiosities of St. Mark’s is the “dueling orchestras”. Several of the restaurants around the square have rather formal looking outdoor quartets playing both classical music and classical-sounding versions of popular tunes from various eras, e.g., Sinatra’s “My Way”. It is a pleasantly anachronistic sight. Here’s one of them:


We spent yesterday (Monday April 20) on a boat outing to Venice’s two most popular nearby islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass factories and galleries, but to our eyes seems to be largely coasting on its reputation. Virtually every store along its canals is a glass gallery, and they seem to fall into two broad categories: crap made in China, and genuinely beautiful incredibly expensive locally-made pieces.  Many of the latter have signs in front of the store that say “No China” so you ostensibly know that you’re getting the real deal. But since our choice seemed to come down to lousy stuff or stuff we couldn’t afford, we didn’t buy anything.


It should be called “Floating French Fries”, but it isn’t.

A few of the stores have resident artisans whom you can watch making glass items on the spot. This was fun to watch. What was not so much fun was when I tried to take a picture of said artisan and got yelled at. “No photos!”  Jeez.  Bunch of glass-holes.

There is an interesting  museum on Murano that displays glass items from the full history of glass, from the earliest Mesopotamian pieces of about 1000 BC to hypermodern art installations like the one I photographed here. The museum was certainly the high point of Murano, but in truth it was no better and in some ways less interesting the Corning Glass Museum in upstate New York. In short, if you’re pressed for time in Venice, you can pretty safely leave Murano off your list.

Our next boat stop was the neighboring island of Burano, very small and known primarily — and for very good reason — for its colorful streets and for its lace industry. We didn’t buy any lace but the houses are insanely photogenic. Here are a few photos from various streets and alleys; the last one is the main canal and shops.

Venice-etal-10 Venice-etal-9 Venice-etal-8 Venice-etal-7 Venice-etal-5

Burano also has its own leaning tower, a bell tower at tilts at about a 5 degree angle, roughly the same as its more famous cousin in Pisa. But it’s hard to get a good close vantage point that allows the tilt to show up in photos; you see it best from far away, aboard the boat.

This was our last day in Venice, and hence our last opportunity for a gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it may be overpriced, but c’mon, how jaded do you have to be to go to Venice for the first time and not ride in a gondola? We are experienced travelers, not jaded ones, and so after appropriate due diligence (i.e., reading some web sites to see how much it ought ot cost, how long a typical ride is, etc., we took the plunge (not literally). In case you were wondering, a “standard” ride costs 80 euros and lasts for roughly a half hour. More if you want to go longer, or if you go at night, or if you want the guy — and they are all guys, every one — to sing. The basic package was entirely adequate for our purposes. (And by the way, if you do want to the guy to sing, do not ask for “O Sole Mio”. That’s a Neapolitan song: wrong part of the country.)

Fun facts, courtesy of our gondolier Antonio: there are 500 gondoliers in Venice, all men, and many having come to the career through the family line (Antonio himself claimed to be 5th generation). They all know each other; we saw that in action since we encountered several other gondolas in some of the side canals, and the guys all chatted continuously among themselves. You have to go to Gondolier’s School to get certified. (And you damn well better study; the clearance on some of the tighter turns in the side canals was about an inch.) A gondola is 35′ long, weighs about 1200 lbs, and has six coats of paint. The Rialto Bridge restoration will take two more years. Et cetera. It was quite a lot of fun, and of course very romantic. We were satisfied, as the second of the next two pictures shows.

Venice-etal-12 Venice-etal-13

And that was the end of our stay in Venice. This morning we picked up our rental car (a brand spanking new Peugeot 5008 that fits us and our luggage perfectly) and set off for Aquileia, about 60 miles to the north, a formerly-great port city during the waning days of the Roman Empire. There is little there now except for a smattering of Roman ruins and, much more impressively, a basilica whose floor is a very old Roman mosaic. Here’s a detail:


We walked around for a while then struck out for tonight’s lodging, a B&B in the northern foothills, a gorgeous wine region whose hillsides look like, well, exactly what you think they should. I’ll try and get some photos tomorrow. We are staying at a 4-unit lodge built from what appears to be a converted farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. It’s a beautiful place in a rustic hilltop village. In fact, the only thing exciting our cynical instincts is the name of the village, which is San Pietro del Fellete, which we of course call St. Peter of Fellatio. No jokes about “thy rod and they staff”, please.

OK, if I’m writing stuff like that it must be late and I must be exhausted. So I will stop now.

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