17 November 2013
If, in a year from now, someone asks me: "Is your life sufficiently unpredictable, full of surprise and adventure?" All I need to do is to think back to a few weeks ago when I spent the day flying 200 feet over South Sudan in a Cessna. "Yes," I'd say, smiling to myself, "You never know when you'll be counting elephants."
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of USAID's implementing partners here, has spent the past six years protecting the fragile remains of this country's biological crown jewels. Supported by several donors, WCS's efforts are dedicated to, among other things, collecting valuable data via aerial surveys, collaring and GPS tracking of wildlife as well as developing a professional, effective and fully-resourced cadre of park rangers to prevent poaching. Data collected during aerial surveys for example, is used to not only maintain a critical database of wildlife movements in this vast country, but is also used to recommend and establish boundaries for new protected areas and corridors for migrations.
So one morning, WCS invites my colleague and I out to occupy two vacant seats on the plane, assist in wildlife counting, and well, and hold a five hour meeting in a facility equipped with a reinforced undercarriage, expanded fuel tanks, spectacular views, natural air conditioning but no restroom. It was in fact, an invite to an aerial presentation of the last frontier of Africa, narrated by an experienced biologist who is also a commercial pilot. Well, let's just say it would have been imprudent to decline the invitation.
We took off heading due north, across the villages which dot the northern outskirts of the capital. We started our journey low, at around 400 feet, but would soon descend to 200 feet, which is prime wildlife viewing altitude. After a mere ten minutes flying from Juba, there were barely any signs of civilization below. Out in the bush, we flew over a tiny village. A mother and her child looked up and waved. I waved back.
It was only about 45 minutes before we saw our first herd of elephants. The plane banked hard left and we circled around the pack of 150 or so elephants. When we first saw them from afar, the pack was spread out in a wide formation across the tall grass. But as we circled, the sounds of the engines frightened them and they receded into tight clusters, like mighty wagons in the Old West, with larger adults in the outer circle and the smaller and younger elephants in the middle. While most of the pack was running from the airplane, with my binoculars I caught the glimpse of some larger ones standing their ground, perhaps even charging towards the strange iron bird that was interrupting their breakfast. I felt happy to be safely up in an airplane, and not down there on their carpet.
We left them after a few minutes to return to their grazing.
The plane then bound northeast towards the White Nile, which snaked out in wide, gorgeous curves. Below, we saw small fishing settlements situated on stilts on the side of the river. They might as well have been on a watered moon orbiting the earth. Out here, there was nothing of man, except them to speak of.
"Down there! Hippo!" the biologist called out. I didn't see anything at first, but as we circled, I could finally make out two pinkish-grey humps in the water. How he saw them as we passed them by at 100 miles an hour is beyond me. With my specs, I could just discern their snorting with annoyance as they submerged. Another quiet Friday morning ruined by the curiosity of science.
We then happened on a bachelor party; a scattering of grazing male elephants. They largely ignored the plane, and listless in the mid morning sun, appear as if they had been up all night reeking havoc on the grasslands.
The third pack of elephants we encountered was much larger than the first, and also paid us less attention; retaining their relaxed, wide formations.
Returning southwards, we crossed Jonglei State and we shown some interesting points of interest of the human species. Not the least of which was the massive skeleton of a canal building machine that had been rendered inoperable by RPGs of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army back in the early 80's. I could hardly imagine a better monument.
From the air it was also easy to see some unfortunate effects of man's interaction with the natural world, some of it instigated by nature and some of it inflicted by man. We happened on flooded villages [see cattle collecting on the dry portions of the remaining ground] and dissected pieces landscape evidenced by seismic oil exploration.
We flew across a vast, uninhabited fluorescent green landscape for some time before the plane started banking widely. Our biologist-pilot, endowed by our creator with some supernatural sense of wildlife detection was excited. Below us, the ground was moving. We had happened on the Great Migration of 25,000 white-eared kob accompanied by a smattering of tiang.
For twenty minutes we swooped over a plain completely covered from horizon to horizon with the stampede of these small and fast creatures. It was not unlike a Fourth of July in a world turned upside down. Instead of fireworks above across a night sky, the daylight explosions of color were born of the wildlife cascading below us in every direction. As we would descend, our new orange-brown friends would flee in all directions, setting off secondary explosions of white birds and black birds across a green canvas. [Yes, friends, I know these pictures do not do you, or the experience of seeing you, any justice whatsoever.]
As we returned to Juba (AKA "diamonds scattered across a green carpet"), the smile was indelible on my face. I had witnessed a tremendous wonder of the natural world largely ignored or unknown by the world of man.
There are no rhino left in South Sudan, and zebra haven't been seen for years. Giraffe are rare. Here in the last frontier of Africa, nothing must be spared to ensure that we never stop counting elephants.
14 October 2013
Ethiopia requires no branding campaign. In the family of nations, its coat of arms is famous. Injera is leavened from Wellington to Washington DC. The Lion of Judah roars from rooftops in Rome, Kingston and Rio De Janeiro. I've always been fascinated by this great nation in east Africa that had formed sophisticated systems of written language, arithmetic and social order before the Coliseum was erected, when my ancestors were still painting their faces blue and spending their days stalking deer.
I'd never been to a place before where the people had rethought the very concept of time. In Ethiopia, 6am is midnight. This is a little confusing at first, but yet it makes perfect sense: the day begins at sunrise, and ends when the sun rises anew. Everyone may rejoice at the dawn and birth of another day on planet Earth in Ethiopia, but back home in America, all but the late-night revelers and the third-shifters snore their way through the shredding of the calendar.
After a brief evening in Addis, I awoke early to hop another turboprop - I was heading north to the highlands to escape the thick marsh air of the Nile lands.
This time of year, Ethiopia is an Ireland of Africa. A hundred shades of green reflect from the fields and glens of Gondar shimmering a magic canvas of light and color into the cabin during the mid morning flight. In the course of the half hour hop from Gondar to Lalibela, the landscape turns quickly from green flat to green hilly, then to army colored cliffs and sepia painted plateaus.
I picked Lalibela to spend my long weekend because I wanted mountain air and dramatic scenery specifically. I heard there were churches carved out of solid rock there, but it wasn't really the destination I was seeking, rather than the journey. In Lalibela, I was pleasantly surprised to find both quite appealing.
The first thing I noticed on the drive to town from the airport was the waving. Everyone waved. Children leading goats waved smiling from the side of the road. A woman paused in her laundry and waved. Three men talking by a store stopped talking to wave as my van rolled by. I waved back, enjoying the feeling of being in a place where people have not tired of tourism, and tourists are an attraction. Only in some of the most remote places in the world: Liberia, Guatemala, Georgia do strangers still wave at strange passers by - finding familiarity solely in our own humanity.
The churches of Lalibela are a sight to behold. Petra is famous because it is carved out of rock. Yet at Petra, the edifice is only carved at the front of a cliff face. In Lalibela, the churches are carved in total: all four sides and the interior in a four story free standing church, out of solid rock. The effect on the traveler is similar to any of the storied feats of human engineering: the Mayan ruins at Tikal, the Golden Temple at Kyoto, the Parthenon in Athens; except that the churches here are not as well known, so the surprise in impression is that much more enjoyable.
The churches are grouped in two distinctive clusters; every church is vastly different in style, substance and character. They are connected with a network of water run off channels, tunnels and semi-covered pathways. My local guide and I accompanied several pilgrims in a tunnel that was completely dark that connected two of the churches. My guide explained that the tunnel was symbolic of man's ascent to heaven; darkness in the turbulent material world is followed by the brilliant light of emerging from the tunnel into the second church.
In the holiest church, a 20 foot tall pillar in the center of the room was covered by a cloth stretched tightly around it from floor to ceiling. My guide explained that on this pillar was inscribed the past, present and future, and no man has set eyes on the pillar since it was created. In every church, in the Ethiopian tradition, there is cordoned off by large drapes a "holy of the holies" section where only the priests are allowed. The desire to peek was insatiable, so much the better that we moved on in earnest.
I was lucky to be in Lalibela during the Saturday market. What color and products were brought forth from the fertile countryside! Goats, plastic sandals, onions, pots and pans, belts, piglets, used shoes, furniture and tomatoes. I shared a coffee with my guide at a local brewshop: the proprietress lovingly roasted coffee beans on a metal plate over an open fire. After they were roasted to a deep raw umber I watched her place the pan of bean by the entrance door to cool, leaving the irresistible scent pliable to seize unwitting wanderers like the Sirens of Capreae. What aromatic advertising genius!
That evening, after a fantastic Ethiopian dinner, I stopped in at a famous local bar, Torpido, to imbibe in some delicious honey wine, or "Tej", and witness local dancing. Two young people danced smiling with impossible energy. Dancing was done fully with the shoulders, intersected with bouts of terrific pulsating moves that only can be described by this Yankee as Ethiopian breakdancing.
The national costume is very interesting. The traditional Ethiopian garment is the white garment covering the head and body worn by men and women. Plastic sandals are standard issue (my guide informed me that no, they aren't manufactured in China, but made by an Ethiopian company). However, green shorts and matching green collared short sleeved shirts covered with pleated tassels and white buttons are the traditional countryside dress of local men and boys. Most people carry a walking stick, shepherd's crook or cane. Also, I counted at least twelve persons wearing Obama t-shirts.
On the final day of my excursion, my tour guide dropped me off along a dusty road with three locals, two Italians and two donkeys. Unburdened by our luggage thanks to the donkeys, the company proceeded down the road out into the countryside. We passed through quiet farms and sleepy villages, where women smiled and children waved and beckoned hello. We forded a rushing stream where cattle napped lazily on a rocky island, paying us only minor interest. Up into the foothills we climbed, then up a small mountain and over a plateau until we reached a wide, generous valley beaming copper and olive. Out on a point was a group of huts where we would spend the night. Below, the village of Genet Mariam, of its namesake monolithic church.
After a hearty lunch of lentils and injera, we hiked out, beyond an ancient fig tree, over to greet the church and its medieval captions. Upon exit, we ran into an impromptu bible class and the church's sentry, who donned a smile and an AK-47.
That evening I shared beers with my new friends in the hut as we listened to Miles Davis on my I-Phone. Wanderers from the village happened in and made themselves mud wall flowers draped in white.
The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh ground Ethiopian coffee, scrambled eggs with local honey and flatbread, I bid adieu to the Italians and hiked down the hill to the road, where a car picked me up and deposited me at the airport. The Italians would be continuing on across an ambitious week long excursion up several mountain summits.
By the evening I was sweating in a hotel steamroom in Addis, and by the next, I was back in Juba, feet up, devouring a biography of Benjamin Franklin while sipping Kenyan black tea with lemon - unburdened like the donkey up on a ridge in the Ethiopian highlands, minus a modest, but rather heavy American backpack.
01 September 2013
It’s a dark, stormy Sunday afternoon in Juba. The torrential rains are finally falling here in South Sudan. The rains have been slow to fall this year – but not as languid as my diligence in updating my blog. This weather is a perfect excuse to catch up on things.
Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 stipulate: “The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Translation: you have to spend five or six weeks on paid vacation (but at your own expense) in the 50 states every two years. But rarely is vacation mandatory, except with the federal government. So let’s just call it reorientationing.
So as mandated by Congress, summer of 2013 produced for me tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles and hotel points, several dozen fond memories with friends and family, some nice long hikes, an underwater encounter with a psychotic sea lion and one very long credit card bill.
It all started back in Kyiv, where, my employer released me to go on home leave. My friends at post threw a going away party on a Soviet-era tram car and we took off to the sounds of Michael Jackson into the forests of Pushcha Voditsya. The golden Ukrainian lager, the brown bread, the garlic infused pig fat, the tomatoes, the shiny onion domed spires of St. Michael’s were in my rearview mirror on that Friday morning. Four years in Ukraine: a brief, smiling episode – no, era, - in my existence here.
When leaving forever, it’s best not to pause on the doorstep for very long. But in Kyiv’s shiny new airport, Terminal D, I had one final run in with the Soviet complex of the variety that did its due diligence in keeping my feet moving on threshold. The KLM ticket agent informed me that since I had two bags, I would have to pay for excess baggage fees on one of them at the airport baggage fee desk behind me. In this line I waited for one hour with a dozen others as the young woman behind the desk painted her nails and talked on her mobile phone, laughing. It is Ukrainian custom that you cannot shake hands over the threshold of the door.
One of my bags didn’t make it on the transatlantic out of Amsterdam to Atlanta, but they put it on the next flight and I elected to wait in the bar in BWI, for the hour or so it would take to board the flight arriving behind me. I sat on the bar stool, ordered a Sam Adams and sighed. This airport, BWI, was the airport of my youth – the happy place where I first flew on an airplane – where I dreamed on making a career out of the air: hopping from one end of the world to the other, living out of my bags and seeing strange exotic places. Since then, air travel itself has lost a great deal of its patina, yet I still love it after all these years. And the dream was no longer a dream. I had made it.
My bag finally arrived, damaged.
I spent a splendid weekend in Baltimore. It was perhaps one of the best weekends I ever had in the first city that I had ever been in my life. I went to the aquarium, was wowed by its Australian section and passed through the shark exhibit that had been there when I was six. At Lexington Market, I ate enormous oysters in the half shell with an ice cold plastic cup of Natty Bo just before I bought a kosher corned beef sandwich for the road. I had hard shell crabs at my Aunt’s house for dinner one day, and brunch with all you can drink bloodys at a Cuban joint on the water with cousins the next.
I had more than a week to kill before I had to be in the mountains of Georgia with family. So, I went to Seattle.
Getting to Seattle from Baltimore proved to be slightly problematic. Storms rolled in on that afternoon and my flight was cancelled. The most attractive option was to rebook on a flight out of Dulles the next morning. So I booked a hotel near Dulles. But getting all the way from BWI to Dulles quickly only has one real option: hire a taxi for a hundred bucks, or rent a car for about the same after gas and hassle. Since I was on reorientation at my own expense, I decided to do it intrepid traveler style on the cheap: public bus to DC metro at Greenbelt. From Greenbelt, take DC metro to L’enfant Plaza. Then take public bus from L’enfant to Dulles. Then take courtesy hotel shuttle from Dulles. Total price: $16.50. Everything went smoothly until the bus to Dulles broke down alongside the highway. I was marooned on bus, aircon failing fast with a nice family visiting from Dothan, Alabama. The whole adventure took nearly five hours.
The plus was that I got to fly across my country in daylight, seeing pretty parts of it like Idaho and Montana that I had never seen before. Seeing Colorado from the air on my way to San Francisco in 2001 was why I eventually moved there in 2003. As we descended into the Seattle area, seeing it all in the morning light pretty fairly convinced me that I will perhaps wind up moving out there some day.
Originally I was going to rent a car and drive up to the Cascades for a little hiking, but the storms in Maryland squashed my schedule and therefore my hiking plans. So I stayed in Seattle at a crappy little joint near the Space Needle my first night, but moved to a really nice hotel for my 2nd and 3rd nights. The Arctic Club is pretty much the coolest urban hotel I’ve ever stayed at on my own dime - a converted turn of the century men’s club, complete with pictures of members on the wall, wood paneling and glass doors.
Reorientationing requires constant eating. It doesn’t say so explicitly in the Foreign Service Act of 1980, but I’m pretty sure Congress meant that federal employees must use their hard earned cash to stimulate the economy. It is not difficult to follow this portion of the law, particularly in Seattle. For example, the very best oysters on the planet Earth come from this portion of the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, it is not just an overblown stereotype that coffee in Seattle is truly mind blowing. My first brew was from some neighborhood place in Belltown, Uptown Espresso, where I tasted the best cappuccino I ever had. And talk about stereotypes, the barista was both sullen and pierced! Also - Chinese Food – I ate two nights in a row in Chinatown – Kau Kau BBQ and Shanghai Garden. For American Chinese restaurants, I give them both four stars. Down on the waterfront, which will be so much nicer once they sink that awful expressway underground, I had some good groan-inducing fried oysters and fish at Ivar’s.
Reorientationing is all about quality of life: do the familiar things that make you feel good, places and people you find interesting, activities that relax you or make you feel comfortable. For me, that meant swimming laps at the Downtown YMCA in Seattle and hiking the fern fields of Discovery Park.
I hadn’t had my fill of Seattle, not even a coffee drop’s worth, but time was ticking away like the tide and there were people to see. So I hopped an early morning Amtrak down to Portland to spend the weekend visiting friends in that strange and gorgeous place.
Portland was roasting under a heat wave, but it was a nice change in climate from cloudy Seattle. I rented a bike to see it all from the proper point of pedal. It had been years since I had been on a bike: an unfortunate circumstance for someone who spent years on two wheels. I forgot how wonderful it was to ride around a bike friendly town. I met some old friends from Peace Corps for beers.
I tried to swim at a local outdoor pool, but it was warm, cloudy and crowded. Off I went, back East to Atlanta, with no regrets.
In Atlanta I spent the night on the 69th floor of the Westin Downtown, a high rise hotel skyscraper in the center of the city. I’d only ever flown through ATL in transit, so reorientationing allowed me time to linger for the evening to get a sip of this sweet, syrupy city. A friend of mine picked me up and we drove out to a brew pub to catch up over a late night. By 1:00am, I was back in my hotel room, looking out over the lighted Atlanta skyline from my glass tower perch.
The next day, I drove north to the Georgia-North Carolina border to spend the week with family at a mountain golf retreat called Sky Valley. It rained the entire weekend, but we certainly managed to eat and drink well, which is really never a problem in the American South. There was smoked pork, fried okra, stack tomato salad with peas and basil with fresh North Carolina shrimp. Another night we ate pizza, wings and Greek salad to the sounds of a live bluegrass band at a local roadhouse.
The next stop was Florida – again to see family, eat, drink and be merry, but on the Gulf. Also on the list was to visit beaches, which we did for four days in a row and I got completely sunburnt. St. Petersburg’s North Shore Pool is about as close as any to be my home pool for the time being – at least by the letter anyway. It’s certainly worthy: a 50 meter crystal clear outdoor pond open year round and located right on Tampa Bay. Then there was the best of St. Pete meal circuit: margaritas and tacos at Red Mesa Cantina, Mexican at Tijuana Flats, and Buffalo Grouper sandwiches on Clearwater Beach. On the last day, we ventured out to Siesta Key, one of those dramatically wide, white sandy beaches that the Sunshine State is known for.
Westward bound again, I headed out to Denver to unwind. The thin dry air lightened the weight of my skull as soon as I left the terminal. I breathed a massive sigh of relief - I felt like I was home.
Matter in this universe consists of concentric rings – from down to atoms all the way up to galaxies. It’s only natural that in order to feel normalcy, we must close these rings from time to time – return to the place we started, back to the past in order to move forward with the future.
Walking down my old trails in Boulder, I marveled at how much time had happened on me since I settled in this place my home ten years ago. I met up with friends. I went to a couple of the watering holes I frequented when I was in my early 20’s. I hopped the late bus to Denver. I slept in on Saturday. I rode a bike down the Platte River trail. I drank margaritas from the Rio Grande and Wahoo’s Fish Taco - I ate a Ralphie burger at My Brother’s Bar and a Chicago dog at Mustard’s Last Stand. But other than that, my plan to do very little of anything but chill out and relax succeeded resoundingly.
A short hop to Vegas is all it is on airplane from Denver – little more than an hour across the Rockies gets you to the City of Sin – which is less than what it takes to get you from the gate at LAS to your rental car.
One of the pictures I had in my mind of home leave was this: driving across an open expanse in the American West through the mountains and desert. Originally, I had planned to do much of it in a car – but the time and expense were soon overwhelming, so much of this trip had been condensed to aircraft. But the feeling of freedom in guiding a vehicle over open spaces at 80 miles per hour is exhilarating, and in that I was not mistaken in putting Zion National Park on my agenda.
I only really had an afternoon on one day (visiting the Emerald Pools) and a long morning on the next (Angel’s Landing) with which to enjoy Zion. But even a few seconds in the park suffices in making one understand why it has such a magnanimous reputation among National Parks. I really don’t have the time or patience to think of the right words about Zion. Go visit it yourself.
Angel’s Landing is a hike that is approximately 5 miles and manages an elevation change of 1,500 feet. These would not be impressive statistics for a hike if it weren’t for the last ½ mile which is along a narrow saddle with a 1,400ft drop in either direction. But there is a chain to keep you steady.
Back in Vegas, I stayed at a high end hotel in a four star room and endured Las Vegas for two nights. The last time I was here I was 13 years old, so this time on the strip was pretty different. I must say that the fountains at the Bellagio must be among the top man made concoctions on earth – as is this lady’s mojito at the stand in front of Caesar’s Palace. Other than that, meh. I lost $150 at the slots, drank an awful slushie daiquiri thing in a gigantic plastic cup, was tortured by a cascade of terrible food. That was enough for me. Leaving Las Vegas… …is easy.
Sun gently streamed onto the balcony of my hotel room porch when I arrived, the weather was a spectacular 74 degrees and holding, yet I spent the bulk of my first hours sitting in rush hour traffic – yes I was back in Southern California. I was silly enough to arrive at LAX on a Friday afternoon – that day of the week that is known throughout the human universe as the worst traffic day in any city in the world, and here I was in the worst city for traffic in the world. But the kimchee alone in Koreatown was worth the drive from Santa Monica, much less being able to chat with an old friend that I hadn’t seen since the 20th century. That’s the thing about Southern California: people are willing to stomach the misery of life in their cars because when they get to where they are going, it’s paradise.
On the Santa Monica pier, there was a hundred person yoga class, which I always thought was kind of counter point, but seemed to work its zen just fine on a Saturday morning. I walked along the beach towards Venice, and took it the fine Californian beach scene. How different everyone was from a beach in Florida, the waterfront in Portland or a pool in Vegas. My, my - what a country!
I left Santa Monica, heading north through Malibu. I remembered Malibu being so much less crowded 20 years ago then what it was now. There were so many cars parked along the side of the road, it felt like an intercity rock concert. I stopped in Thousand Oaks to have dinner at my Aunt’s before driving onwards to Ventura to board a dive boat.
Back in the early 90’s, I went to summer camp on Catalina Island the same week that the Soviet Union fell apart. It was where I first learned to kayak, where I first saw Garibaldi fish and where I first thought how nice it would be to see the kelp forests of California from the sea floor. Besides that longstanding longing, I’d never been cold water diving before and Channel Islands National Park seemed to be a good place to start. Under an overcast, ominous sky, the dive boat anchored off of Gull Island: a hideous piece of rock just south of Santa Cruz Island. This was Great White Shark birthing season in the Pacific, and I was going to dive alongside their juicy seal cheeseburgers in a neoprene cheeseburger suit.
My dive partner turned out to be a Ukrainian tourist from Kyiv, and I think I shocked her when I asked her in Russian how cold she thought the water was going to be, because then she forgot how to put on a tank and assemble her gear and I had to show her.
The water felt beyond freezing cold, even with a hood and gloves. We immediately were dive bombed by a mischievous sea lion who, baring his teeth inches from my mask, was evidently having a total laugh in messing with those of us who had never dived before with large, non-human mammals before. The first dive was cold, dark and difficult – the strong tide, extra gear and new, non-tropical scenery unnerving me. The second dive though was absolutely brilliant: the kelp forests rose 50 feet in every direction, the sea floor was covered with starfish of every imaginable color and size – from big purple 18 pointed stars, to small orange five pointed stars to medium red and blue stars. Sea urchins and small crustaceans filled in what little gaps existed between the star fish. Garibaldi swam around us, unafraid. Harbor seals shyly evaded us, not so much anxious but more annoyed that we were gawking at them during their Sunday morning brunch on the bottom.
Four dives were planned, but I could only do three because of the cold. I supervised the fourth dive from the comfort of the ship’s Jacuzzi.
Back on land, the next morning I headed north along the coast, listening to the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet.” I was going to a little beach town called Santa Barbara to close another loop.
I’d last set my eyes on the Santa Ynez Mountains back in October 1992. I’d spent a year and half of some pretty consequential two years living there in Santa Barbara: a place that looks like paradise. Now I was returning to spend just a few days roaming the places of my youth in the first foreign city I’d ever lived.
Santa Barbara had only changed in one real way since I’d left her. She’d shrunk incredibly; in the course of either her age, or mine. The bustling seaside city had become a sleepy beach town: gorgeous as ever, but more like a retired movie star than a metropolitan Diva. My coffee shop was still there: Santa Barbara Coffee Roasters. It’d just opened when I arrived in ’91, just when coffee shops were starting to gain popularity - going on to become one of the defining institutions of the nineties. My coffee shop used to have a garage door, apportioned kind of like a warehouse. Now it’s furnished, but the coffee is as good as I always remembered.
I went back to my church, the Mission, where I almost became confirmed in the Catholic Church. I walked my old playground, Ledbetter Beach and even had the tarred heel souvenirs afterward to prove it. I rented a bike and rode to the Bird Sanctuary and back up to Leadbetter - and back again. I rode the Free Electrical Shuttle up State Street (it now costs $1). Everything was in its place, right where I had left it in the early 90’s. Content with that reality, I boarded a plane to Phoenix.
Back in Phoenix, I visited more family. We talked about old times as we drifted in the pool. We watched the Cubs lose to the D-Backs, drank margaritas and ate Mexican food. Then we went to Sedona, just as we had before I left to go teach in Japan for a year. The next day, I boarded a plane for DC.
The last few weeks on the East Coast were a blurred vision of meetings, trainings, errands and visits with friends and family – and of circles and loops. I went to a party on U Street and saw off a pal to Pakistan. I had dinner with family in Alexandria. Old Peace Corps buddies joined me for dim sum on Dupont Circle. I partied in Baltimore with friends from Denver. The waitress who waited on my friends and me for pizza one night in DC was the college roommate of a girl I graduated with in high school. I brunched with my friends from college and gave them advice on where to go in Vegas. I went to a barbershop in York, PA and had my hair cut by the skilled hands of the older brother of a good friend from high school. I traveled to a small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up to visit an old friend who now lives on the block between the buildings where I attended Elementary school.
Then, I was back at Dulles.
02 May 2013
The Kingdom of Morocco was the first nation to ever recognize the United States of America. For those of you unfamiliar with the American Revolution, 1777 was probably our worst year of that conflict, and in December of that year it looked like either we’d lose the war or it would devolve into an endless bloody stalemate sustained by proxies, mercenaries and guerillas. It was a highly risky gambit in favor of a revolution that was not likely to succeed. Yet even if the Moroccan recognition of 1777 was a short-term, self-interested strategy, the close ties between this dynamic North African nation and my country have been both genuine and enduring. Formal relations didn’t begin until after the Revolutionary War, but since then, the 19th century treaty relationship that has existed between Morocco and the US is the longest unbroken treaty in US history.
On my last morning in Marrakech, I walked the grounds of the Badi Palace, built in the 16th century. I happened into a section that appeared to be a tiled floor, intersected by the remains of walls separating the valley into chambers. This was where early embassies of foreign nations were established, in a heyday that knew neither revolution nor republic.
Few nations in the world enjoy such a reputation for welcoming foreign visitors as Morocco. I recall a recent article by the Washington Post which highlighted a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) (http://washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/21a-fascinating-map-of-countries-color-coded-by-their-openess-to-foreigners/). WEF’s Travel and Competitiveness Report 2013 remarked that Morocco was the third most welcoming country in the world for foreigners. After having spent just a few days in a chilly country that was the third least welcoming nation for foreigners on the planet, my vacation in Morocco fully vindicated the WEF’s perspective.
I chose to vacation in Morocco for several reasons.
First, it was close to Europe. Over the past year, I crossed the Atlantic six times and completed countless other lengthy jaunts, so I was looking for a more proximate destination from Ukrainia. Little did I realize how much Morocco really is a friendly neighbor to the south for France, Spain, and Portugal. In the midst of journeying through the Dades Valley, I lost count of the EU-license plated RVs caravanning their Senior EU citizen passengers through a cheap and cheerful exotic landscape that is only a few days drive from Madrid or Barcelona. It never occurred to me that Morocco had become a sunny, palm tree-lined Canada to the EU retirement community. Even flying to Casablanca from Kyiv only required five and half hours of flying and a brief connection through Paris.
Second, I wanted sun, sand and Sahara. Check, check and Check.
Third, I wanted to see what a Kasbah was. Check.
Fourth, I wanted to purchase some nice carpets. Maybe two. Doublecheck.
Fifth, I always wanted to go to Morocco. My mom says that I say that about every country I visit, but really it’s only true for a hundred or so.
The plane from Paris experienced ferocious northerly head winds that delayed the arrival about 30 minutes, so it was well after dusk when I hopped into a taxi in front of the terminal. These days, getting into a taxi alone when you’ve just arrived in a strange place always takes at least an ounce of courage. As the taxi driver pulled out of the airport, he took off the taxi sign off the roof of the car and placed it on the seat beside him. This wouldn’t make me nervous in Kyiv, because I know the cab racket there at Boryspil. But in a strange place, it made me very nervous: this revelation that my taxi driver wasn’t legitimate. The driver said nothing as he sped off down the dark road; the radio blaring at high volume in Arabic what sounded like a deafening, fast monologue all the way through the 20 kilometers to the Casablanca city center. From a certain perspective, Arabic has some things in common with Russian in the fact that the foreign eavesdropper often has a hard time determining if the speaker is angry or not. Maybe we were listening to a radio religious address? A serious political rant? Then the address finally paused for a few seconds and then I heard some single syllable word screamed triumphantly in French. I had, in fact, been listening to a football game for the last half hour. The driver smiled in the rear view mirror and started happily chatting to me in French. I told him I didn’t speak French. He switched to halting English, sufficient enough to bid me a fine welcome to Morocco and express joy that I had arrived on the very evening that RCA Casablanca hosted a match against FAR Rabat. I suppose that this was like arriving in Birmingham on the November night Alabama plays Auburn, except that the match in Casablanca was a tie (1-1) which would never be tolerated in American football. It took a while to get into town, as the traffic was bad and football revelers had taken to the streets after the game to somberly celebrate their tie. For me at least, in wanting to get to my hotel room, I was glad that no one had won because that would have tied up traffic significantly more. Also, I was impressed that the unregistered taxi driver had only charged me the market rate.
The next day I headed to Rabat to explore Morocco’s capital city and buy some carpets. Disembarking from the train, I was fairly immediately impressed with Rabat. The city was clean, bright and well-organized. I was staying at a riyad (a type of traditional guesthouse that is situated around a courtyard) in the medina (central marketplace, typically several centuries old). The taxi let me off near the entrance to the medina and I walked along the narrow, ancient passage ways to the door of my riyad. The medina was a noisy, bustling place, so I was rather surprised to experience the calming silence of the Riyad El-Maati when I entered through the low, thick door. Since all of the windows and doors face inwards towards a tranquil garden, the quiet of the air inside was punctuated only with the chattering of song birds.
I was misled by what the guidebooks tepidly described as Rabat, “administrative center” , “a few interesting sites…” - when in fact those words would better be applied to Casablanca; Morocco’s concrete-strewn commercial capital whose skyline reminded me more of Osaka.
My first stop was the Kasbah Oudaias on Rabat’s shoreline. A kasbah is a distinct old district of a city or ancient cooperative of families, like a village of a clan or a tight-knit collection of families. The particularly photogenic Kasbah Oudaias is about 900 years old, and is completely inhabited today. I was enthralled by the site’s collection of stunning doors.
The windy beach area was busy on a late Friday afternoon, as most businesses in Morocco close around noon on Friday for afternoon prayers. The King reportedly belongs to this surf club along the shore, and I saw a half dozen local kids in wetsuits drilling dry land lessons.
The next morning, I toured the impressive Hassan Tower and grounds, and walked Rabat’s friendly streets on a sunny Saturday morning. After breakfast, a colleague from work met me and we drove over to a carpet shop in nearby Sale to look at Morocco’s finest threads. Knowing that what little desire I had to tussle for carpets in notoriously difficult Marrakech, I bought two carpets at this superiorly run women-run establishment and my friend graciously agreed to babysit the 20 kg bundle for me while I toured around his country for a bit.
I hopped the train to Marrakech. I would have called it the Marrakech Express (the song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from Woodstock Two, 1970, came up on my IPhone just south of Rabat, completely by random shuffle) - but the Rabat-Marrakech train was anything but express. It was 30 minutes late leaving Rabat, and we picked up an additional 30 minutes among the dozen or more stops between Rabat and Marrakech – totaling a close to six hour journey. And the train was standing room only – evidently, this weekend was a school holiday in Morocco, so the car was certainly lively with grandmas, moms, infants, toddlers and teenagers. Despite the inconvenience in delays I endured on my train travel in Morocco – the train would also be an hour late on the return journey from Marrakech to Rabat – I was very impressed with the combination of mass transit available in Morocco. Rabat and Casablanca have sleek new street trams and nice buses. Intercity trains connect Rabat and Casablanca every 30 minutes. Regional trains service most of the country. I’ll bet Morocco has among the best mass trans network in all of Africa.
Once I had waded through the roaring insanity which was Marrakech on a Saturday night in the midst of Moroccan school holidays (only to again be marveled by an impossibly quiet riyad), I wondered if the place, has for all its time, always been this way. Marrakech is pure and utter chaos. As a casual observer, I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, but to walk, and live and breathe as a foreigner in central Marrakech is calamity incarnate. Taxis are not allowed in the center after 1pm for good reason. The shear volume of bi-pedal, bi-wheel and four legged entities: people, donkeys , mules, mopeds and bicycles make it impossible for anything with four wheels to fit into the narrow passages which, for the exception of the main square, make up the central pulmonary system of Marrakech.
Yet to call Marrakech clogged would not be entirely accurate. After all, “clogged” implies that at places all movement is slowed to a trickle. This is inaccurate precisely because motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles slow for nothing on two or four legs. They scream by the pedestrian at twenty or thirty miles per hour blaring their horn, if they feel it is not too inconvenient to notify a living creature that what separate them from their imminent departure from this world are only a few inches or a split second decision to tie one’s shoelace. Your life could be snubbed out in a Moroccan moment. Indeed, I witnessed motorcycles actually accelerating when they approached a crowd of man and beasts, as if they determined that they would be in a better condition at an increased velocity to plow through the organisms. And in the midst of these very dangerous thoroughfares, someone decides to set up a fruit stand.
It’s probably always been this way, as is true the world over, the intersection of foreigners and commerce always breeds opportunity and opportunists and Marrakech is no different. Walking the narrow and ancient passageways, it’s easy to lose one’s way. And then there are a dozen or so folks to tell you that you are going the wrong way. They deliberately point you in the wrong direction, chase after you to ask for money or you inadvertently collect what's called in the ocean - a remora. A remora offers to help you find a place whether you would like help or not. A remora will not accept no for an answer. If you try to walk away, the remora will follow you. And then the remora guides you to where you weren’t looking to go, like a shop. Or to the tanneries, which is where my remora took me.
Human beings will be born, walk the earth and die peacefully most without ever knowing how leather is really made. I learned a few years ago while watching a TV show on pre-industrial production, and was completely horrified. In short, leather has been made for millennia using goat and dog feces, and cow urine. In giant pits. Workers must stand in the filth like squashing grapes. Excess fat must be scraped from the cow and goat skins – gathering in piles, putrefying in the sun, attracting insects, malicious bacteria and wild animals. Then what you get is the softest, most spectacular leather on earth. What horrors a Prada-toting millionairess will never know.
I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to visit the tanneries, but my remora led me there to a waiting guide and there was nothing I could do but to grin and bear it. The guide gave me a sprig of mint to counter the overwhelming trigger to hurl my delicious breakfast of olives and croissants.
The shopkeepers of the hundred thousand or so stalls that make up the media and surrounding souks are highly aggressive. Like Jerusalem, whole sections of the city are dedicated only to market stalls.
The expat lifestyle arranges that, at sometime, you will be vacationing in some exotic locale and will randomly run into a colleague from work doing the exact same thing in the same place. This all occurred courtesy of Facebook and I wound up enjoying an evening with excellent people as we devoured tajines and the familiar, yet endlessly fascinating topics of which I will never tire.
Despite the terrors of trampling and clausterphobia experienced by the pedestrian tourist, there are several aspects of Marrakech which I am definitely a fan. First, the fresh squeezed orange juice in the Jeema El Fnaa is second to none on Earth. Next, the mixed grill dinner tents in this square where they used to hold public executions. Also, the best hour long massage and steam sweat can be had in a local hammam. The photography museum, difficult, as everything is in town, to locate, was well worth the quest. Evening on the main square is sensory overload: drum circles, piles of cobras entranced by snake charmers, acrobats, monkeys on chains, but it is a spectacle that every traveler should experience once. Also, there were moments that made my remora earn his commission, where we were actually walking quiet streets in serene sections of Marrakech where the locals were out shopping for dinner vegetables. The truth to traveling Marrakech is that it accentuates the truth of traveling elsewhere: the best (and many times only) way to see a place well is on foot, given the helpful advice of strangers, the recommendations of other travelers and the lucky guidance of providence.
Several esteemed travel authors have demeaned tour group travel to the point of transforming the word “tour group” into an obscenity. Obviously I find roaming packs of tour-bus-bound, single-nationality tours to be annoying, as many might. A tour bus is, after all, a terrible way to see a place for anyone under 75. However, I’ve found in certain places, like the East Coast of Australia 10 years ago or the Holy Land last year that for solo travelers joining a small excursion can be a fantastic way to meet other travelers and to see a place, albeit on the road well traveled. But you never quite know what people will wind up in your group, and this is uncertainty is always slightly unsettling. What if you wind up in a group where you are the only one under 50? What if no one speaks English? What if your tour group turns out to be a Polka band from upstate Pennsylvania?
I was relieved to find out that my group for a three day trip through the Gorges and into the desert was not only multinational, it consisted of a certain age range and was full of fun people. Also, our tour guide was quite cool and he really knew what he was doing. So it was a great trip, as the pictures speak for themselves. I’ll stick to broad, sweeping descriptions and an anecdote or two as writing this blog entry has already consumed the better part of a gorgeous spring May holiday here in Kyiv.
The van in which we traveled took us over the Atlas Mountains to a geologically fabulous valley on the other side. All along the road, Moroccans were selling impressive fossils and geodes – it seems that this is definitely a place for rock hounds. I picked up a pair of 300 million old Chrotalaucephalus trilobites, kind of like giant cockroach-size rolly pollies that swam in seas during the Devonic Period.
As a passenger, it seemed to me that drivers in Southern Morocco are exceedingly courteous and relaxed. Drivers waved to each other, and passed with caution and deference.
The route towards the Gorges passed through, above, below and around magnificent ancient cities built for the human and camel traveler. I was not expecting to see these mud-walled cities, as I thought they only existed in far flung central Saharan locales like Timbuktu in Mali. The tour guide pointed out that it was “only” 52 days by camel from Marrakech to Timbuktu.
The other thing that surprised me throughout my visit to Morocco was how green it was. Even in start of the desert, in the dry canyons, the river bank was bursting with life.
The movie industry in this part of Morocco is supposedly booming. Not only was Lawrence of Arabia filmed here but also recent movies like Babel and Star Wars.
These rock formations near Dades reminded me of Red Rocks in Morrison, CO.
Arriving in the desert, the beginnings of the Sahara resembled NASA pictures from the surface of Mars. We left the van and the 21 century behind and hopped on camels for a two hour trek to an oasis. I thought I’d sworn off camels in Egypt, yet here I was on another darn camel. As I climbed aboard my ship of the desert, the thing frothed at the mouth and grunted ugly and I suddenly remembered what Indiana Jones said to Sallah, “I said no camels! That’s six camels! Can’t you count?”
Just like my first camel trip, I was suffering from a bout of newly-obtained food-borne pathogens, and this did not help my disposition as we traveled into the sandy abyss. By the time we finally arrived at the cat-infested oasis at nightfall, the pathogens had worked themselves into the depths of my muscles. The camp leader called us into the dinner tent. The Canadian gave a shout and proclaimed something squishy was under the table. It was half a dead cat: only the front half, to be specific. The tourists snapped pictures. The camp leader laughed and remarked that it had been eaten by another cat who had recently developed a taste for his brethren. Whatever remained of my appetite and I retired for the evening. The sound of cats crawling on top of the tent, and the pathogens crawling in my gut ensured that I would not sleep that night.
One of the best parts of my journey to see the Sahara was when I washed it off over the course of several days. Returning to civilization, I bid a fond farewell to my new friends and went to my riyad where I slept for 11 hours. The next day, after taking some antibiotics with my banana breakfast with Jemaa El Fnaa orange juice, I visited the Badi Palace, got another hour long massage, and departed for Rabat, this time in the first class cabin. My thirst for adventure had been satiated. The last two days of my vacation were spent by the pool in nice hotels in Rabat and Casablanca. This was just a vacation after all. The aircraft back to Paris was slowed by extraordinary strong Southerly winds, and almost caused me to miss my connection to Kyiv.
Looking out the window of the cab ride home, my new carpets in tow, I thought on how the distance people can comfortably travel these days never ceases to amaze me, and wondered how certain people can endure, much less love their work. I practically required physical therapy after four hours on a camel. I have no idea whatsoever how the nomads could spend 52 days on camel to bring goods to market. Well, then again, at least it’s not tanning leather.