Blog Archive: 2010

Rolling Through Cultural Dessert

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Home Away From Home, Imlil, Morocco

Gawking at the jagged vertical splendor of the Dolomite Mountains, or plodding slowly up a long, dry valley in the High Atlas Mountains, or imagining 12 centuries of intrigue within a mosque-turned-cathedral can only reveal the faintest outlines of the giant heaps of cultural riches of Italy, Morocco, and Spain. But they are tasty morsels. These settings shape the culture of the people who live there.

During 2010 I visited those three countries. I wandered around and tried to photograph some distinctive scenes and learn about their cultures. This posting is a look back at some of the memories of getting around in those countries.

Our own culture is nearly transparent to us. It is just how things are in our daily world. We take it for granted. But when we travel we notice culture and tradition by their contrasts to our norms.

Architecture, art, literature, languages, religions, education, government, transportation, food, greetings, gender relations, holidays, and many other expressions of culture and tradition make travel interesting.

You learn that other cultures and other traditions work. Brief glimpses don’t reveal differences in personal liberty and fulfillment. But you see happy people who seem contented. Some of them appear more contented than those who have much more material wealth, while some families do stagger under generations of poverty. The contrasts of wealth are extreme in some places. There is a great deal to think about as you walk village streets, or drive through, or ride a train through  towns in these countries.

This morning I was unpacking and cleaning my old and trusty rolling carry-on luggage. We just returned from a family Christmas reunion. I am amazed at how well that luggage has held up over the years.

As I looked at the wheels my mind started drifting to all the places they had rolled through this year. I thought about those towns in Spain, Morocco, and Italy which are still vivid memories.

The port of Málaga and the torn-up streets along the river between our motel and the train station were a workout for those wheels. Ancient Cádiz led us down the coast to Zahora. We let the luggage rest in a small beach house while we explored and photographed Los Canos de Meca, Barbate, Conil de la Frontera, Zahara de los Atunes, Vejer de la Frontera and our local beach during the day. The autumn heat taught us the logic and beauty of the siesta. It also made the tapas option on the menu our only choice. Eating light was appropriate. You have to know how to order coffee the way you like it. This was a prime assignment for me for the first couple of days in each country. In Spain it was cortado doble! I photographed architecture, cathedrals, and street scenes in the beautiful hilltop village of Arcos de la Frontera. I learned about the frontier between religions in Andalucía. We spent an interesting night in a bull fighting arena in Jerez de la Frontera at a flamenco festival. After the train ride from Cádiz it was a long walk from the train station in Córdoba to our motel, but the luggage rolled on over paving stones, curbs, and concrete. In Granada we stood under an overhang near the train station waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t. So we deployed our plastic garbage bag rain covers for the luggage and walked briskly to our motel. When we returned to Málaga we had to negotiate the construction zone around the train station again, but no luggage failures. (Local spellings are used here throughout.)

It was a long train ride from Málaga to Algeciras where I took the ferry to north Africa. Tanger, Morocco is a challenge for travelers and luggage. It is a rugged industrial port which is well-worn and full of street hustlers. I had a long walk uphill to find my decrepit hotel. Old cobblestones were a hard workout for the wheels. An even longer walk the next morning to the train station was fortunately mostly over newer sidewalks. The train station in Tanger is new and shiny. I was supposed to be met at the train station in Fes by a taxi arranged by the hotel, but we missed each other. I got in a cab and started toward the old walled city center, the medina. We went only one block before the driver stopped in the middle of the street, jumped out, and got into a violent shouting argument with someone standing by the street. The cab door was hanging open in the traffic and I was alone in the cab as a small crowd gathered.  They were yelling in Moroccan Arabic so I never knew what it was about and it was unresolved when the driver returned. We went one more block and he stopped and picked up a friend who wanted to ride in the same direction. When I finally got to the gate of the medina he stopped and told me that my hotel was 200 meters ‘that way’. No cars can navigate the maze of tiny alleys and 200 meters provided plenty of rough cobblestones and many intersections. I was lucky that there were signs to the hotel. The taxi ride and the tumult of the crowded noisy alleys in Fes were intimidating but I was almost always treated with respect and kind hospitality. I learned a lot about Fes history, traditional crafts, religion, and culture. The medina was a total immersion. When I wheeled my load back up the hill to the gate to leave Fes I had an even more interesting cab ride. There are lots of official red Petite Cabs in Fes. I was waiting for one to drive by when a grizzled grandpa in a funky helmet rode up on a motorcycle pedicab. He insisted that he was a safe driver and would get me to the train station in good shape. I loaded my luggage and jumped in the open truck bed and hung on as my luggage and I bounced around through the potholes and traffic anarchy of Fes. But we did arrive safely. The longest train ride (8 hours) was from Fes to Marrakech. Due to a bad map that luggage really got a workout rolling over the stones and broken sidewalks around the train station as I circled the area trying to find the motel. Finally I gave up and took a cab. The next day was interesting for that luggage as it started the day in the back of a new SUV driving into the High Atlas Mountains and ended the day in a saddlebag on a mule in the village of Imlil. The photo above shows the entrance to Dar Imlil, a guest house. If you end up in Imlil someday, it should be high on your list for lodging. It is a great place. The last test for the luggage in Morocco was Casablanca. The urban streets would have been tough, but the cab driver found the motel (after an unsettling amount of wandering) and let me out at the door.

The Casablanca airport was smooth and easy for those wheels, as was Rome and Milano. Going through security and checking the luggage in Casablanca was very similar to US airports, except I couldn’t carry it on board along with my camera pack-0nly one item. But it showed up promptly in Milano ready for Italy. The next morning I had an interesting drive across northern Italy from Milano through Bergamo, Brescia, Verona,Vicenza, Treviso and Belluno on my way into the Dolomite Mountains. I was on the Autostrada (toll expressway) for most of the way so I could only see domes and cathedrals on hills in the distance. I eventually found my way on the narrow, winding roads in the mountains to the tiny beautiful village of Cibiana di Cadore. I rolled the luggage into the hotel and it stayed there safely while I explored the Dolomites. I even drove to Venice one day and to Kitzbuhel, Austria on another day. The self-reliance and love-of-life typical of mountain people were on display in every little village. Just as each village in Morocco had its mosque and minaret, so each village in the Dolomites had its cathedral and steeple. And since tourism and mountain recreation is vitally important, the villages are decorated with colorful shutters, hanging flower baskets, and artistic homes. Having a car in Italy allowed me to explore the Dolomites and I got a good workout. It took several days to get used to the narrowness with cars coming the other way on hairpin corners and big drop-offs. But the scenery is simply exquisite. I took so many photographs that I got physically exhausted from holding the camera.

Finally I had to pack up and head back to Milano. I put the strap around my faithful luggage and headed to the airport. It had navigated cobblestones, broken sidewalks, mule leavings, curbs, airport security, stairs, and over-packing again. No problem. During 2010 it also made trips to visit family in California and Oregon, USA. It went through a lot.

I tried to mail home and stuff in mementos from the many places that I visited. But most of my keepsakes are photographs, memories, and knowledge. Each time I was faced with new culture and traditions I felt disoriented and intimidated. But quickly a few interactions taught me that the people shared similar values and that their traditions were versions of the same things I was used to. Honesty, integrity, respect, humility, and thoughtfulness were expressed in each of the cultures. There were different religions, governments, and other cultural aspects. But as many people learn from traveling, we have more values in common than we realize.

Throughout my travels this year I enjoyed the variety of cultures and traditions. And there was certainly variety. And once again I learned that variety in art, architecture, traditions, etc enriches the experiences of travel. And the more time I put into learning about them before the trip the  better my photography planning goes and the more I get out of it.

In 2011 we plan a village-to-village walking tour near Cahors, France. My faithful rolling luggage will be stowed in a hotel at the starting point and we will venture on with light packs. But we will also explore the area for a few days after our walking tour so the luggage will get a workout.

I hope that in 2011 our experiences teach us more about our shared values and the importance of human connections. I wish the same for you!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Hot Winter Beach

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Beach Vendor, Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

What’s black and white and red all over?  Coco Verde!

[Audio suggestion if you use Pandora: Open new tab-Go to a New Station-type in Adriana Calcanhotto and enjoy some warm Brazilian vocals. But come back here to escape to a hot beach!]

It’s early morning and you have walked for miles along the beach. Your sandals are caked with sand and the sand is grinding under your feet. You can feel the heat building. The sun is warm on your back. You are already sweaty. People who are running and cycling in the other direction have to squint because of the intense sun in their eyes.

That dawn sun shines brightly on black and white stones on the walkway. The stones were hand-placed in an artistic pattern that repeats continuously for more than two miles. The warm sand, the blue sky, and the green palms contrast strongly with the vivid red of the tables and chairs.

You have a decision to make. Do you stop and get a snack or coffee before you head out across the sand, or is your breakfast still holding? There are many vendor huts like this one  along the beach.  Each hut is named. The yellow pennant on this hut says ‘Coco Verde’ or green coconut in Portuguese. The daily delivery of coconuts is stockpiled for afternoon drinks. OK, a green coconut isn’t black and white and red all over, but this hut and the walkway are.

A few volleyball and football players are making their way onto the beach. The crowds will arrive later, in the heat of the afternoon. There are still expanses of sand open for you to set up your spot for the day. The bustle of the traffic is loud along the oceanfront boulevard, but the sounds of scooters, buses, and trucks fade if you move across the sand toward the gentle surf. There you will hear only the soft hiss of the waves, gulls calling overhead, and the constant shouts from the games nearby.

Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro is coming to life. You are there in time to see the deeply tanned regulars claim their territory.

This photograph was taken in July, in the heart of Brazil’s winter. Expected high temperature on that day was around 27°C (80°F). As I write this on December 22, snow and freezing temperatures are causing holiday travel havoc across northern Europe. Much of North America is shivering. Today in Rio de Janeiro the predicted high temperature is 37°C (99°F).

I hope that this Copacabana photo has brought you some warmth wherever you are. If you are listening to Brazilian music maybe the feeling will last. Happy holidays!

Let It Snow

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Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon, USA

The cushions are soft and the chairs have a substantial sturdy presence. Hand made iron frames hold the heavy Douglas-fir slabs in place. The arm rests are wide enough to hold a hot drink and a good book, or your e-reader, or your computer. These are old chairs, well broken-in, but with a long life ahead. They were made to last.

The room is enormous. The sounds of a crackling, roaring log fire and the smell of smoke and old wood dominate your senses. You can feel the comforting heat from the over-sized stone fireplace. The drifts are deep outside and its is snowing heavily.

As you settle into the chair you tilt your head back and follow the massive volcanic stone chimney up through the circular balcony of the floor above and further up to the beams supporting the steep roof. Heavy iron braces, fat beams, hand placed stone, and planks of local woods provide durable shelter from the Mt. Hood blizzard outside.

At Christmas time this room has several fragrant Christmas trees and carolers stroll through the lodge filling the nearby restaurant and distant hallways with familiar melodies. It is a busy time at Timberline Lodge in the Cascade Mountains east of Portland, Oregon, USA.

But if you get up early you can find a quiet spot and settle in. It is a cozy place to spend a winter morning reading, talking, or just looking at this historic building.

Playing in the snow will come later, or tomorrow. Right now, and for a good long time, it is time to appreciate the craftsmanship of these beautiful, artistic old chairs. Rest a while by the fire on a winter day. Close your eyes. Listen to the fire. Feel the heat. Let it snow. Happy winter!!

Where’s Your Santa?

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Jacoby's Storehouse, Arcata, California, USA

Holiday traditions vary widely around the world. Midwinter holidays bring brightness, warmth, and celebrations to make up for the long nights and stormy weather. Through the long sweep of history many religions have established celebrations based on their beliefs. It is a season of significance and renewal.

Of course, ‘midwinter’ holidays is a term that applies to one hemisphere at a time. December celebrations in the northern hemisphere are dramatically different than the December ‘midsummer’ celebrations in the southern hemisphere. Since this blog is read by people in many countries with many traditions I will acknowledge that this posting is about only a narrow slice of holiday traditions.

I look forward to Christmas season. It is a time of togetherness for our family. A peaceful, warm, bright interlude. We have a chance to slow down and step aside from our daily tasks and stresses. We can put our roles away and just do things together. I hope that your traditions bring you that kind of fulfillment and happiness.

The Christmas tree in this photo is in the main lobby of Jacoby’s Storehouse in Arcata, California, USA. It is a building filled with shops and great restaurants. They  find a tree that reaches the ceiling and then decorate it extravagantly. Lights and ornaments cover the entire interior of this historic building. For many years it has been a central location for celebration within our community.

This building is in the heart of redwood country in northern California. It played a pivotal role in the excitement and frenzy of the gold rush in the middle of the 19th century. It is a four story brick building and was built as a fire-resistant safe place to store supplies for the miners and loggers. The supplies were brought on ships from San Francisco, almost 300 miles to the south. It was a dangerous and wild trip.

When the ships came into Humboldt Bay they navigated through deep channels to the north end of the bay where Arcata is. A pier had been constructed 2 miles out into the bay to the end of the shipping channel. The first railroad in California operated between Jacoby’s Storehouse and the end of that pier. The supplies were transferred from the  ships onto the railroad cars and then transported to the Storehouse. Pack mule trains were organized in the town’s central plaza in front of the Storehouse. The loaded mules made the demanding trip inland over the coastal mountain ridges to the gold bearing river bars that were teaming with wealth seekers.

The Arcata Plaza is now a meeting place for the community, no mules allowed. Festivals and farmer’s markets are held there now. Jacoby’s Storehouse still plays an important role in Arcata. It is a gathering place for relaxation and dining where families, neighbors, and friends meet.

The plaza is also important for young people in Arcata. They gather there for celebration and reunions. People who grew up in Arcata and have moved away usually spend some time there whenever they visit. Many memories.

So to all those Arcatans who live elsewhere now, but still feel some emotion when somebody says, “Go Tigers” this photo is for you. Where’s YOUR Santa?

Safe travels and I hope that you can be with people that you love for the holidays!

Still Life or Landscape?

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Outdoor Still Life

Landscape photographs can take on the feeling of a still life when the view is narrowed to a few isolated elements. The label probably doesn’t matter but the approach is similar.

In a typical still life painting or photograph you have control over the lighting, the objects, and the composition. The image is about the inanimate items that you place within the scene.

I have experimented with still life photographs in a small enclosure with controlled lighting. It is time-consuming and interesting to see the effects of altering the light intensity and direction. My preference is a black background, very low lighting, and underexposure so that the objects appear to be floating in the dark. Sometimes I use a flashing red bicycle light during a long exposure to introduce another color on the surface of the items or to reflect off of the background cloth. But it is always about the objects placed in the enclosure. Not the setting or the surroundings. There is no context.

Landscape photographs can be approached in a similar way. It helps to find distinctive objects that fill the view.

You only have control of the view of the objects, as with all landscape photographs. You can not rearrange the objects. When you find a few interesting natural objects you exclude the rest of the landscape. It is a close-up of those objects, like a still life. Nothing complicated.

The creative part is the composition of that close-up and the lighting. The lighting you wait for. It is what you think about and plan for. You watch it develop and change. It is the entertainment as you try different compositions. It continuously alters the scene in front of you.

Your composition might have worked with the light five minutes ago, but now, you move to show the effect of the light that enhances surface texture or shadows. The color of the light changes also as the sun angle lowers. The light is manipulated by the Earth’s rotation, not by where you move your studio lights. But it is still all about the objects, not the setting. There is no context.

This scene could be in Africa, the middle east, Australia, South America, or the western United States. It is apparently an arid place. But the location is not important. This image will always be about the objects floating against a background. The background sky could easily be a cloth drape behind a carefully arranged miniature diorama.

I am not trying to show you the Mojave Desert. This photograph is about shapes, composition, colors, and lighting.

An Oasis Under Terracotta Palms

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The Mezquita, Córdoba, Spain

Palm trees stretch in every direction in perfect rows to the horizon. The branches overhead create a shimmering hypnotic illusion.

They are not a mirage. But the orange and white colors introduce doubt.

The further you walk the stronger the illusion takes hold. It is impossible to see the entire field of columns and arches from any one point. The feeling of being in a hall of mirrors is powerful. Every tree is the same size, the curve of every branch equal. Almost immediately you become lost in the maze.

If you arrive early you can wander quietly under the grove of terracotta palms with few distractions. This is the Mezquita (Spanish for mosque) in Córdoba, Spain. The building also contains a cathedral.

The original Mezquita opened in 785 AD. It grew and evolved over several centuries. At its peak it contained 14, 400 square meters (~155,000 square feet). It recreates a feeling of the openness of desert expanses. The roof is supported by widely-spaced columns and arches. They simulate the appearance of date palms. At one time there were 1293 columns. Fewer than 900 remain.

It is difficult to photograph this expansiveness, even with a super wide angle lens (set to 19mm). The lighting is dim. I tried to use a monopod but a security person told me that was not allowed. I offered to put the rubber tip of the monopod on my shoe so it wouldn’t mar the ancient floor. But the rule was rigid. (The same thing happened in The Alhambra in Granada, Spain.)  This photograph is only a small alcove within the Mezquita. If you turn to the right from this view the columns stretch away from you in every direction as far as you can see.

I spent two long mornings within the Mezquita. If you arrive at 8:30 am entrance is free and the crowds are small. After 10 am they charge an entrance fee and the tours begin. I photographed until there were too many people. Then I sat and watched and listened to the tours which were given in a variety of languages. This also gave me time to think about the things that may have happened during more than 12 centuries within this building. It is a place of spiritual contemplation and introspection.

Four Bells Toll Whom?

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Bell Tower, Mezquita-Cathedral, Córdoba, Spain

The Sun emerged over the ancient walls of the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain. The sky was clear and perfectly blue. The bright light slowly moved down the bell tower and highlighted each architectural flourish. It enhanced the colors of the stone and the well-worn bells and their framework.

The stone sculpture and ornamentation showed signs of weathering.

The bells stood ready. They are part of the communication to worshipers from the cathedral within the Mezquita. But the stones that contain the bells began their service as part of another call to worship.

The Mezquita (Spanish for mosque) in Córdoba is an enormous stone building filled with a spell-binding expanse of columns and arches designed to mimic the open feeling of the desert. It was built on the site of, and incorporates portions of, the church of St Vincent. In 784 this site of both Visigothic and Roman structures was purchased for the expanding Muslim population. The Mezquita was built on the site. Córdoba remained an important center of Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus or Andalucía) until the reconquest in 1236. In the 16th century King Carlos I ordered the construction of a cathedral in the center of the Mezquita.

The original minaret was also reconstructed. This photo shows the reconstructed and encased minaret. It was originally 48 meters (157 feet) tall. In the 16th century it was rebuilt into this bell tower and now stands 22 meters (72 feet) tall. So this tower began as a minaret to call Muslims to worship.

I spent two long mornings photographing inside the Mezquita-cathedral. It is a singular place of beauty and history. I will post some of the photos from the interior in this blog later. This photo was taken while I was waiting for the Mezquita to open. The grounds of the Mezquita, which cover several square blocks, are enclosed within a tall wall near the river Guadalquivir. This bell tower is incorporated into the wall on the north side.

Sorry for the title of this posting which is a distortion of the title of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous books. For Whom The Bell Tolls is set in Spain and tells stories of the Spanish Civil War but didn’t have anything to do with this Mezquita, but I saw the four bells and somehow ….


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Flamenco Performance, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Thousands of people crowded onto the dirt floor of the bull arena in Jerez de la Frontera. Plastic chairs stood in long rows where matadors usually roamed. Rhythmic, syncopated clapping reverberated through the bleachers that circled the arena.

There was a happy fiesta mood in the air and long lines at the refreshment counters  under the stands, deep inside the arena. The local fino (sherry) flowed into pitchers. It was a long-anticipated night and the famous flamenco performers were ready.

This was a bulería festival. The bulería is a fast and dramatic style of flamenco music. Jerez is the home of the bulería which originated there in the 19th century. The music involves one or two guitarists, a lead singer, and several people clapping in unison as the percussion section. The guitar playing is fast and incredible. The singing is intense and very dramatic with a narrow range of notes.

The clapping is distinctive because it is very fast and the complicated rhythms accent the guitar playing. Despite the complicated rhythms, as each performer gained speed through their performance, thousands of people joined in and kept up. Between acts there were call-and-reply clapping challenges sent from one side of the arena to the other. Inside the halls of the arena, where people went for refreshments and restrooms, impromptu groups of young adults started clapping and singing performances. Rather than being cynical about traditional music they relished it.

These performances were a highlight of the autumn fiestas (Fiestas de la Vendimia) in Jerez in September. There were many musical acts but very little dancing. We expected more dancing. It was a long evening and when we left at 3:30 am there was still one more performer before the finale and jam session.

The evening did feature one act headlined by a dancer. Of course a still photograph can not portray the speed and intensity of a flamenco dancer. This photo is only a frozen instant. This is Andrés Peña. Even though it was after 2 am his performance was a furious and extended virtuoso exhibition. The sounds of the racing guitars and staccato clapping barely kept up with the flurry of piercing taps from his flying boots. It was a memorable end to an immersion into flamenco and Andalusian culture.

Cloud Museum

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Museum in the Clouds, Messner Mountain Museum, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

“They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.” A classic line from the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi.

In it she complains, “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The Museum in the Clouds in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy is the opposite of this. The village cooperated with world-famous climber Reinhold Messner to rebuild a former army fort into a mountain museum, dedicated to honoring the spectacular Dolomite Mountains and the people who live and recreate there.

The army fort was built on the top of Monte Rite between 1912-1914 and gave a commanding view over any movements of troops below. It withstood World War I and II, despite attempts to blow it up. It is embedded into the mountain top and is built of stone.

Now it gives unrivaled 360° views of the major peaks of the Dolomite Mountains. And they are simply amazing. The museum building has been completely refurbished and houses a world-class collection of paintings, drawings, notebooks, gear, and memorabilia from the exploration and climbing of the Dolomites. It is prepared as an art exhibit and classic museum experience. All of the equipment and notebooks are archived and presented in display cases and wall displays. The paintings range from romantic period oil paintings to modern art. There is also a video presentation room.

The roof of the museum is flush with the summit of Monte Rite (2181 meters-7153 feet) and you can walk over the entire structure and see the view in all directions. Protruding through the roof are three polarized glass enclosures. They allow light into the museum but also provide views of the sky, mountains, and clouds from within.

I rode the first shuttle van up to the museum in the morning. It was a chilly, cloudy, and foggy day in October. I was the only tourist in the van with all of the museum and café staff. The road is closed to public traffic.

I spent the entire day around the summit trying to photograph the highest peaks as they emerged from the clouds. Except they didn’t emerge for several hours and even then not entirely. I waited by my tripod and tried to stay warm. I photographed a hikers’ bench and interesting rock outcrops. Every once in a while I could faintly see the imposing walls of the high peaks through thin spots in the clouds, so I would get ready and…then the clouds would close in again. Eventually most of the clouds dissipated, but the sky remained hazy all day.

During the day I also photographed the museum and the glass enclosures. I had a circular polarizing filter on the camera and the glass of the enclosures was also polarized. The cross-polarization made some interesting patterns in this photograph in the late afternoon. I had very little success with other photographs which was frustrating.

At the end of the day I walked down the four mile access road. The low evening sunlight highlighted nearby peaks and brightened the autumn colors. I was the only person walking down the hill and it was a very enjoyable quiet walk. Sometimes you have to keep the images in your own memory even if you can’t capture them to share with others. It was just about dark when I arrived back at the parking lot. It was a great day in the clouds and bright sun looking at the high Dolomites.

There is a network of these Messner Mountain Museums. They are dedicated to exploring, climbing, and living in mountain landscapes around the world. There is an emphasis on the historic relationship of humans to mountains.

You can see more photographs of the Dolomite Mountains in my Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Firewood or Art?

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Artistic Stone House, Cibiana di Cadore, Italy

Life in the Alps is demanding. Weather is extreme and economic conditions are a challenge for most.

But still, in some mountain villages homeowners take the time to stack their firewood as artistic creations. They know that tourists will be strolling through their town and that their homes are on display. My firewood is stacked in rows in my shed, but I don’t take the time to make an artistic statement with it.

We first noticed this in Wengen, Switzerland in the Bernese Oberland. The stacks of wood outside village homes were more like sculpture than fuel. It looked like some of them had been there for years, for viewing. Tiny pieces of wood were arranged carefully to form intricate patterns.

This beautiful stone house in Cibiana di Cadore, Italy has a very carefully prepared firewood stack with flowers and artwork included in the display. Cibiana is filled with outdoor art.  Many of the older homes have murals painted on the outside. The villagers are aware that people enjoy looking at their well-tended homes.

It is a great place to photograph doors and windows.

Cibiana di Cadore is an ancient mountain town in northern Italy that has evolved from being a manufacturing center for heavy steel skeleton keys to become a beautiful, artistic place to visit in the Dolomite Mountains. The people are friendly and lodging is economical. It is a good base for driving throughout the Dolomites or even down to Venice. But you have to be comfortable with narrow winding mountain roads. It is a quiet place in October and the spectacular mountain scenery is enhanced with fall colors and cool temperatures.

You can see other Dolomite Mountain photos in the Italy gallery by following the Photography link above.

Fez Street Party

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Birthday and Wedding Celebration, Fez, Morocco

When a large group of street musicians walk down the narrow alleys of the old walled city in the heart of Fez, Morocco they are like street sweepers. They push everything in front of them from wall to wall. You can either shrink into an indentation in the wall and try to let them pass or you can walk into the middle of the band and have your ears shattered by the high-pitched horns and pounding drums.

I chose to walk into the middle of the musicians and photograph. Maybe I was annoying them because it seemed like some of those horns were held right next to my ear on purpose. I was swept slowly along within the din for several blocks until we came to a small plaza where they could spread out, where this photograph was taken.

This was a celebration of the birthday of Moulay Idriss II. (He was the son of the man who conceived of Fez as the capital of his kingdom. The medina (old original walled city) was completed in the 9th century.) The street celebration was also a wedding ceremony. The combination gave it a festive exuberance. After I returned to my hotel I could hear them playing for several hours as they walked through other parts of the medina.

I had spent the day with a life-long resident of the old part of the city. I hired Abdulah as an official guide through my hotel. He was born in a house near the hotel and had spent his 60+ years navigating the narrow streets. He had taken me down alleys through the maze of centuries of culture past all manner of vendors. We had visited a tile and pottery cooperative, the leather works, the oldest operating university on the planet, and of course I was given the opportunity to tour the rug cooperative and buy a rug (I declined the rug). After our long day of walking he was ready to be done, but then we got caught up in the street celebration. I could have tried to stay with him and exit the alley quickly before the band reached us. But it was too tempting to wade into the chaos and photograph. This was my third day in Fez and I had gotten over my initial intimidation and culture shock. It was time to mix in.

Stereotypes and cultural pre-conceptions once again had proven inaccurate and superficial. I had been treated mostly with friendship. I had been respectful and was treated with respect in return.

On the first day there had been several young guys (who pester everyone who enters the medina) that insisted on being my guide and helping me find a better hotel than the one I was going to. I was thankful that my hotel had signs along the streets so that I could tell them, “No, merci”. My crude French helped because Morocco had been a French protectorate and French is still a common language of business. Taxis can not enter the medina alleys so you are deposited at a gateway with your luggage and just have to dive into the stream of mules, hand carts, street-hustlers, vendors, tourists, and beggars. The main “streets” slope downhill through the heart of the medina to the river. They are bulging with people. It was quite interesting.

I am glad that I got to see this celebration. The happy wedding couple seemed truly honored with their combined festival.

Atlas Shucked

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Tizi Oussem, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Walnut orchards provide important income to farm families. But what if you can’t use a tractor on the steep mountainside where your family tends its three trees? Yes, THREE trees. Maybe four.

The arid and rocky High Atlas Mountains of Morocco are not prime walnut orchard lands. In fact they are the opposite of where walnuts are grown in the fertile and flat Central Valley of California where the long straight rows of massive walnut trees send their roots deep into rich alluvial soils.

The one thing these two places have in common is that melting snow and rainfall in the high mountains provide the irrigation needed to grow walnuts.

In Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains walnuts are grown on the lower slopes of massive rocky mountainsides. The walnut trees are not in rows but are scattered along the slope parallel with winding irrigation ditches. The ditches are hand made channels supported with stone walls. Below the walnuts generations of families have built and maintained terraces for crops such as wheat, corn, mint, and vegetables. The soil behind the terraces was carried and placed by hand after the stone walls were built.

On my first day of a guided trek when I walked into the first walnut “orchard” I thought they were just some native trees growing randomly on the footslopes. I was far from home in north Africa and didn’t really think of it as an orchard at all. Then I noticed that the leaves looked familiar and realized that they were walnuts. Over the next several days I learned about the small-scale walnut industry from my guide.

As we walked through little villages we would always enter or exit near the walnut trees that belonged to those families. My guide, Omar, explained that within the jumble of scattered trees each family owned several trees. We were there during harvest season. We would pass entire families from pre-school children to grand parents working together or resting in the shade.

Harvest is accomplished with long sticks that are used to whack the branches and knock down the nuts. In the old trees someone had to climb up into the tree and reach up and whack the upper branches while balanced on a wobbly branch. The children and older family members gathered the green nuts off the ground and placed them into large woven plastic saddlebags on the family mule. The nuts were then spread out on the flat roofs of the homes to dry.

Then they are shucked and taken to market in Marrakech.

On the last day of my walk we stopped at Omar’s home and he and his wife provided a snack and hot mint tea. I was hoping to meet his father and his children, but his four year old daughter and his parents were down the hill harvesting walnuts.

Several generations live together in the family home and they take care of each other. They depend on the hard work of everyone in the family. Some of them work on the walnuts, produce, and apples. Other family members may be mountain guides, muleteers, or even run a small store or café for the mountain tourists.

They grow their walnuts in places where many other people wouldn’t even consider orchards. And it works for them. No tractors. No tree shakers. No low conveyor systems moving the nuts to trailers. No frost protection.

This posting is not really intended to be an agricultural report. But I think that it is very interesting that these Berber families have made a living farming behind these stone walls and terraces.

There are more photographs in my Morocco gallery. Follow the Photography link above.

If You’ve Seen One Mountain

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Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Sassolungo Langkofel, Dolomite Mountains, Italy

Pretty mountain pictures are a dime-a-dozen. Mountains are photogenic. Big deal. The cynic’s voice is clear: “I’ve seen them all.”

I have a particular affinity for mountain landscapes and the people who live in them. I am not a mountain climber, but I am duly impressed by their courage. I just like being in the mountains. I enjoy the strong weather, the raw landforms, the vegetation, and the traditions of self-reliance.  As I age I have become less enamored with cold and with physical labor, but I am still fascinated with mountains.

I put two mountain ranges high on my list of priorities on my recent photo excursion. They are both very different than any place I had ever been. That intrigued me. I worked very hard to depict their uniqueness, but in the face of such spectacles I felt inadequate.

I was gone for weeks and I am sure my family and friends wondered where in the heck I was and what I was looking at. Well, this photo is an example of what I was working on.

I am preparing an exhibit of these photos. It will be called: “If You’ve Seen One Mountain….” Photographs of mountain landscapes and their villages from The High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Dolomite Mountains of Italy.

The exhibit will be in Plaza Grill in Arcata, California beginning November 15, 2010.

“…mountain landscapes and their villages….”

Humans form a strong bond and a vital relationship to these mountain landscapes. The people, their traditions, and their villages are shaped by this relationship.

The exhibit will not just be pretty mountain photographs. I do hope the landscape photos will be  unique and interesting. But there will also be photos of the villages and buildings that people shaped from these mountains. Old, rustic, strong buildings. Beautiful villages. Simple lifestyles controlled by physical and financial struggles in harsh settings. Lifestyles that also create honest straightforward people who can be jovial and know how to celebrate the beauty of life lived in a beautiful place.

These villagers are people who are willing to welcome strangers as long as they enjoy and respect their place. I laughed with and made instant friends with people even though I did not understand Berber or Italian and they did not understand English. Life is good in these beautiful places even though it is also difficult. Why not smile and laugh? Why not plant flowers and artistically stack your firewood? Why not paint your shutters very red? Why not pause and look at the imposing skyline and enjoy the quiet? Why not walk slowly through your village and greet your neighbors?

I hope to show that attitude along with the striking scenery. The mountains, villages, and culture of Morocco and Italy are very different from one another. But the people have a great deal in common.

High Art

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Tower Sculpture, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

Tower Sculpture, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

High art. Not high-brow art, just HIGH art. I am working on an exhibit of photographs of art in high places such as steeples, towers, minarets, domes, and building ornamentation.

The exhibit will be in Moonrise Herbs in Arcata, California in November, 2010.

This exhibit is the result of telephoto explorations of artwork in Spain, Morocco, and Italy. It will include photographs of steeples and minarets, which are remarkably similar to one another. But it will also highlight sculpture and other ornamental details high on towers and buildings.

The question is: Why did they put such great artwork so far off of the ground?

The only way that most people will ever appreciate this work is by looking through  binoculars, telescopes, or telephoto lenses. That is unfortunate because the detail and skill shown in this artwork is remarkable.

I will post some of these photos on this blog as I work my way through photographs from my recent excursion.

This first example is in Venice, Italy on a tower high above Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). It is near Saint Mark’s Basilica. This entire piazza is crammed with high art. The buildings are enormous and densely decorated with sculpture. The roofs bristle with statues and weird ornamentations.

The tile background behind the lion sculpture is a rich blue color that still matches the sky, visible on the sides of the tower, on a beautiful sunny day in Venice. When I look closely at this photo I can see that there is netting stretched over the lion. It must be there to keep pigeons off of the sculpture. The lion is holding a book sculpture. I would not have been able to read the script on the book standing in the piazza. Can you read it? Probably not on this small version. In Latin it says, “Peace unto you Mark my evangelist”. When this is printed and framed it is very legible.

Herding Atlas

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Shepherd's Hut, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Shepherd's Hut, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Making a living on a dry, rocky, ridgetop in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco is a daunting challenge. If you are successful, it is a living that furnishes the necessities without embellishment.

Livestock are the sole measure of wealth and success. Self-reliance and manhood are not defined by an over-sized four wheel drive truck. Actually, there is no road to parade your truck on anyway.

The struggle is to accumulate and maintain your mules and your herd of hearty sheep. The mule is the main transportation system and cargo carrier. The supplies are all brought home in the large saddlebags of your mule.

You don’t have to spend time painting your house. The house color is determined by the rock formation you have chosen to build on. Houses vary from reds, to grays, to brownish yellow. You might have to maintain the mortar that keeps the cold winter winds out of the interior.

From your shelter you can hear the calls to prayer echoing through the mountain valleys, but you have to pray alone.

There is no reality TV, only reality.

If you have learned other languages besides your native Berber you might aspire to being a mountain guide or a muleteer, providing recreation and adventure to tourists. If you knew English, French, German, and Italian you would be in demand. But then you would have to escort strangers through your childhood villages while they gawk and photograph your homes as curiosities.

Your culture and lifestyle have served your family for centuries. Only recently have minor changes begun to occur in villages nearby.

You are a Berber shepherd. You either solve problems or you perish.

Frontier Monument

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Monument, Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

Monument, Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

The names of many villages in southern Spain (Andalucía) include the phrase “de la Frontera”,  because they were on the frontier when they were named. This was a frontier between cultures and religions.

A clash of cultures that lasted centuries took place in Spain. Muslim and Christian leaders battled for influence and power. Moroccans and Saharan Berbers controlled vast areas of Spain including Córdoba, Sevilla, and Granada for more than 200 years. Islamic culture and ‘Moorish’ architecture and art are intricately woven into the fabric of Andalucía. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religions were all practiced, but didn’t always co-exist peacefully. To me, logically, religion should be the least likely pretense for fighting and war, but it has been a common cause of intolerance and conflict throughout history.

This monument is in Vejer de la Frontera near the southwest coast of Spain. The veiled Muslim woman is a powerful image.  It is a recognition of the period when Vejer was within the area controlled by Islamic leaders.

I found this little plaza and monument one morning just before dawn as I was photographing the streets and buildings.  It is surrounded by the so-called ‘Juderia’ or ancient Jewish section of Vejer. It was a quiet and thought-provoking space overlooking the newer part of the city. It was intended as a reminder of changing cultures and their influences.

Vejer de la Frontera is a beautiful and well-preserved ancient village. On the hill behind this monument there are three enormous old wooden windmills. Andalucía has not forgotten the advantages of wind. There are thousands of even bigger modern wind generators scattered over the rolling countryside mixed in with large solar power generation facilities. Spain is advanced in the use of these kinds of electrical generation technologies.

The Traveling Part

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The Alhambra, Granada, Spain (photo by Annie Howell)

The Alhambra, Granada, Spain (photo by Annie Howell)

The reason I haven’t posted in a while is that I am gathering new images. And I am learning. Travel is a great teacher and is humbling. I am on a five language trip, and I am not that good with English!

I am on a trip including southern Spain, Morocco, the Dolomite Mountains in Italy and maybe a quick drive into Austria. My wife and I had a wonderful time in Andelucia. The days are long and it is hard work. I start the days with a general plan and even hire guides to help me focus and gain access to tricky areas. For example, the ancient walled city (medina) in Fez, Morocco is a chaotic stream of every imaginable person and every kind of vendor crushing together with chickens, camel meat stands, sandal makers, brass artists, souvenirs, cafes, donkey carts, and musicians. It was helpful to have a lifelong medina resident guide me, teach me, and help me avoid offending people while photographing.

Next will be the Atlas Mountains and walking to Berber villages for several days. Again, I will hire a guide to help me so I can concentrate on photography.

The photo in this post was taken by my wonderful traveling companion, my wife Annie. It is by one of the entrances to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. I hope to return with many interesting images and will post them here with short stories. Take care.

Deserted Oregon Desert Dessert

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Dawn on the Deschutes River, Oregon, USA

Dawn on the Deschutes River, Oregon, USA

Oregon is world famous for its stunning Pacific coastline. Lush, dripping forests thrive in the high rainfall. The surf pounds on dramatic rocky cliffs and beautiful beach towns huddle against the wind.

Fewer people outside the western USA  know the dramatic beauty of the volcanic Cascade Range that separates the coastal forests and inland valleys from the extensive arid eastern part of the state. As Pacific storms lift eastward over the massive Cascade peaks most of the moisture is condensed and dropped. This creates a classic arid ‘rain shadow’ inland of the mountains. Even fewer people know the deserts on the east side of the Cascade Range.

In reality the area is certainly not deserted. Central Oregon is a very popular recreation and retirement area. Although the current economy has slowed growth. But further to the east away from the mountains it is easy to find quiet and deserted deserts.

The Deschutes River passes through the area surrounding Bend, Oregon. It drains the melting snow on the east side of the Cascades and is the main river in Central Oregon. Downstream there are challenging rapids. In Bend the river is more tame.

This photograph was taken in Bend. I walked down to the river before dawn. Actually there was more stumbling and scrambling than walking. The brush and rocks along the bank were difficult to get through or over in the dim light.

I found this little niche next to the river and set up my tripod. I was experimenting with lenses, exposures, and shutter times as the light increased. During the several hours that I was there I took hundreds of photos. It was a beautiful clear Oregon morning. This blue sky dawn would be rare on the foggy coast, but here they are the norm.

Oddly enough this was the first photograph I took. Even with all the experimenting and the changing light this is the one I like the best. The other hundreds of photos were not a waste of time because I learned and enjoyed a beautiful morning on the river. But it still surprises me that the first photo after setting up turned out.

A long exposure is a common way to show the effect of moving water. This was a 4 second exposure at f/22. The small aperture also provided a long depth of field and kept the basaltic rock next to me in focus as well as the forest in the distance. But I also tried fast shutter speeds to freeze water splashing up from rapids. And some of those were interesting, especially after dawn when shafts of sunlight shone through the forest to spotlight little violent stretches of rapids.

It was a great morning on the banks of the Deschutes. This forest and narrow band of water don’t look like a desert, but they were deserted at dawn. And it was a visual treat, like dessert.

Extreme Trailhead, Mont Blanc

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Trailhead, Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

Trailhead, Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

Are you brave enough to take the first step on this trail?

And then the further you go the more extreme it gets.

Most trailheads are flat areas beside a road or at the end of an access road. The trail usually starts out gentle or moderate as it leads to terrain that the road doesn’t or can’t reach. There may be several hours of walking along a stream before you reach the big climbs to a peak or a mountain lake or a waterfall. The challenging terrain is usually found after a long walk from the trailhead, in general.

This trailhead is a gutcheck.

The trail leads to climbing and skiing routes. The trailhead is reached by cable car from Chamonix, France up to the top of Aiguille du Midi which is a sheer granitic spire. The elevation is about 12,638 feet (3842 meters). Everywhere you go from the top of the cable car leads to dramatic and dangerous terrain. Too many lives have been lost in these mountains.

As you can see the first few steps over this boot-width trail on the jagged rock are not for the casual hiker. Mont Blanc provides the dramatic backdrop.

A spirited competition among early climbers to reach the summit of Mont Blanc lead to success in 1786. Chamonix became a mountain destination for vacationers but did not have rail service until 1901.

My daughter and I rode the cable car to photograph Mont Blanc on the first sunny morning during our stay. Clouds still filled the valley below. My wife and other daughter chose the comfort of a flat and safe village restaurant terrasse. We weren’t prepared for this kind of hiking/climbing so we stayed on the observation decks of the cable car building. I don’t think I would be able to take that first step on this trailhead anyway. The dropoffs were very intimidating.

There are more photos of the Mont Blanc area in my France gallery. Follow the Photography link above.

Across France by Train

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Train Station, Chamonix, France

Train Station, Chamonix, France

Great travel writers like Graham Greene and Agatha Christie wrote of long train journeys.

Greene’s Stamboul Train (1932) told the intersecting stories of carefully crafted characters traveling from France to Constantinople. (This book was also published with the title Orient Express.)

The mystery of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express(1934)  unfolded and was solved (by Hercule Poirot) as the train made the journey in the opposite direction. Actually it was stuck in a snowdrift during the most suspenseful part, but it was headed toward France.

Train travel is ready-made for interesting stories. A group of people who would not know each other under other circumstances spend time together enclosed in small rooms traveling across vast distances.  Proximity provides opportunity for introductions and there is time for interaction. It is natural to get to know your neighbors even when language is a barrier. So if you are creating fiction it is a great way to mix people together to produce any kind of drama, intrigue, or romance.

For most people though, train travel is routine and uneventful. Modern train travel in Europe is comfortable and clean. There is much more room for you and your luggage than on a plane. Trains are usually on time and they are more affordable. It is relaxing to sit back and watch the countryside roll by. The scenery is interesting although you do also see the back sides of buildings and lots of graffiti that you would not normally see if you were walking around a town. On high speed trains you are only able to see flashed glimpses down streets of the villages that you pass through. But there is no worry about rental car damage or driving stress. And you can get up and walk around whenever you want to-no fasten seat belt sign!

Our longest train trip so far was a full day journey from southern France deep into the Alps. The distance was not great, but because of the route we followed it involved five different trains and transected many different kinds of terrain. We were traveling with our daughters which made it an enjoyable and memorable adventure. We started early in the morning on a local train from Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean to Nice. The next train stopped in Marseille for an engine change to convert to a high speed configuration. We stayed on the train during this work and learned about the engine change from the French couple across the aisle from us. The longest segment was to Lyon but as we flew through the countryside we enjoyed snacks from the food service in the next car. There weren’t any mysteries or secret agents on our train (that we knew of) but it was a great time together. From Lyon we traveled to Annecy at the edge of the Alps. As we stood on the platform waiting for the next train I could feel the anticipation building. I love traveling by train in the Alps. Our next train took us through beautiful mountain villages and provided huge and beautiful vistas on our way to St. Gervais les Bains. Now we were really in the mountains. And finally the last train took  us to my favorite alpine village – Chamonix.

Chamonix was the home of the first winter Olympics and is at the base of Mont Blanc. It is surrounded by intimidating extreme rock and ice and exquisite mountain scenery. The village is beautifully maintained and is filled with classic stone buildings, colorful shutters, and hanging flower baskets. It is a climbing and skiing center, but you can also take the cable cars to the summits for sight-seeing and hiking. I have written about Chamonix in other postings in this blog so if you are interested you can enter Chamonix in the search box above and see other photos and read more about it.

Now even though we didn’t have any mysteries on our long train ride we did have a little intrigue when we tried to leave Chamonix. On our departure morning we rolled our luggage up through the village to the train station. All four of us had packed into one small backpack and one rolling carry-on each, so we were pretty mobile. When we reached the station it was deserted. We had our passes so we didn’t have to worry about buying tickets, which was a good thing since there was nobody working at the station. Eventually we found a sign on an office door which included the words “Grève Nationale”. We figured that that meant a national strike, but we weren’t sure if it meant all trains were cancelled or how long the strike would be.

We waited for our train to Geneva but the appointed departure time passed and there was no train in sight. We talked to a few other passengers who were trying to figure out how to get to Geneva also. We finally decided that we would have to take a bus later in the afternoon if no trains arrived, IF the buses were running.

We stayed close to the station just to make sure we didn’t miss an opportunity. We were getting a little frustrated as the time approached for the next scheduled train to Geneva. But a few minutes before the departure time a train rolled into the station, the train number was correct and it was on time. So we got on, found seats, stored our luggage overhead and left the station on time. It was as if nothing had happened and we were never given an explanation. There was a national strike, except for when there wasn’t. In our experience this was the only train that was significantly late or cancelled.

When we got to Geneva the train stopped at the French-Swiss border. Everyone was asked to disembark and were told this was the end of the line. We had made a reservation at a hotel by the main train station, but this train didn’t go there. So we had to buy a local tram ticket to get across town. Our hotel was a block from the station as advertised, but we didn’t know the other train stopped at the border on the outskirts of town miles from the main station. But that is the adventure of travel. If we had known more French we would have probably been more aware of what was going on.

We thoroughly enjoy train travel despite these two little episodes. Most of our experiences have been trouble-free and very relaxing. The European transportation system integrates airports, national trains, local trains, city trams, subways, buses, and ferries across lakes. Most of the time they are connected or are only separated by short walks and if you pack light it is easy to change from one mode to another.

You don’t need to have mysteries or espionage to make train travel memorable. But they sure make for good reading. Happy trails!




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