This blog is a collection of brief illustrated travel vignettes which use photos and sparse text to transport you to another time and place.
» Escape from the pressures that the world surrounds you with. Step into the photos. Let your imagination spring to life! «
The stories are only magnets to pull you into the scenes. The stories are simply creative writing descriptions and perceptions inspired by travel. I am trying to guide you away. Your participation is helpful.
Your imagination is much richer than any over-produced video.
These blog posts are not chronological. They are not intended to be read in order, nor do they describe ongoing travel events. They are not ‘live reports’ from the road. In fact, they are written between trips to help me escape back to these places, also.
They are also not merely documentary. There are some illusions, some allusions, and some fantasy.
They are created for your entertainment.
. . . .
Please use the SEARCH box above to find stories that may interest you.
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There are 173 brief stories to read at this point!
You can return here whenever you have two or three minutes. Go far away. Return stimulated.
As you look around you can decide whether there are hidden travel treasures or merely heaps of ….
Piercing horns and booming drums punch your senses. You can feel the drums in your stomach and your ears ache and ring from the shrill call of the horns.
You can’t see them yet, but you know there is no escaping this street band because the alley is only 10 feet wide. You have nowhere to go. And they are getting louder. Here they are now!
Street Musicians, Fès, Morocco
Wandering the ancient alleys of Fès, Morocco is an immersion in north African cultures. There are no exits. You are surrounded by the sounds, the smells, and the intoxicating sights of thousands of years of tradition. It comes at you and sweeps you along.
Fès cultivates ancient arts and crafts. A good guide can take you through the artists’ cooperatives and their shops. You may have heard stories about being guided to their brother’s/uncle’s rug shop in order for them to gain a commission. Well, that happens, but the rug shop is a cooperative partially funded by UNESCO (9th century Fès is a World Heritage Site). After the tour they take you to a private, air-conditioned show room, serve mint tea, and bring out stunning rugs. They are polite, but skillful salesmen.
Stunning Rugs, Comfortable Sofa, Mint Tea
Fès is famous for its leather works. They tan and die leather that is made into handbags, wallets, slippers and everything you can imagine. The leather works is a favorite for photographers because of all the colorful vats. But on the day I was there, they were using dull colors. The process is interesting though. Some of these vats have been used continuously for 1,100 years.
Leather Works, Fès, Morocco
The tanning process includes the use of bird droppings mixed into the vats. So they hand you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose when you go out onto the roof overlooking the work area. The leather is treated by stomping it into the mixture. Ancient process.
Ancient Processes Still Work
The colors that they can achieve are amazing.
Leather Color Samples
And you can find an array of leather items in the tiny stalls along the market alleys. I don’t think those “Nike” slippers were designed in Oregon.
Finished Leather Products
Fès, like other north African cities, shows many stark contrasts. There are contrasts in wealth, education, technology, and traditions. But even in a thousand year old city people want to have modern conveniences, like television. Satellite dishes are everywhere.
Technology Contrasts, 9th Century Fès, Morocco
After exploring Fès for several days you feel buffeted by the culture. It swirls around you and recedes down the alley.
The Street Band Moves On, Pushing Through the Alleys
But the echoes stay with you long after you leave. You can still hear the street musicians. You can still see the tiny stalls selling everything imaginable. You have seen so many kinds of people. But the helpful, humorous, and pious people are the ones who stick in your memory.
It starts with a gentle nudge. The people standing on the platform begin to slowly slide backwards across your window. The rhythmic bumps quicken and the graffiti blossoms on the walls in the outskirts of the station. The tracks converge. The train bends around a sweeping right corner and moves past the the edge of the village. You sink deeply into your over-sized seat as the train smoothly accelerates across open countryside.
Soon the soft hiss of the track and the flashing power poles hypnotize you. You are flying toward a distant horizon and unknown adventures. You have time to talk, to read, to dream-maybe a little wine and some music. The long track defines your movement but not your thoughts. They certainly don’t have to be linear.
Through the Window, Colorful Scenes, Distant Goals
Of course you left on time. You have learned that you better be on the train on time. No particular fanfare. It just leaves. And you have double-checked the destination. At times you still wonder if you are on the right train…. In Morocco the station announcements are in Arabic and French. They are not always loud enough or clear enough over the speakers. You crane to see the first sign in each station and then check your map.
The Beautiful New Station, Fes, Morocco
Long distance train travel is a singularly interesting experience. It is not comfortable nor punctual everywhere. Even a single trip can vary in punctuality as you pass from one country to another. But in some places it is both very comfortable and very punctual. Certainly, at its best, it is like clockwork.
Speaking of Switzerland, one of my favorite routes is from Geneva to Lausanne along the north shore of Lake Geneva. Below the train, vineyards and beautiful homes descend to the lake shore. In the distance the snowy Alps form the horizon.
The long ride from Geneva to Budapest traverses many kinds of terrain. The towering Austrian peaks give way to the flat Carpathian Basin. The signs, the stations, the towns, the people change as your progress. They keep moving.
Your world is inside the train. It is your reference. The rest of the world is on the move.
Sometimes you have an entire train car to yourself. Other times people are standing in the hall and luggage is in a teetering stack above you.
Swiss, Upper Deck, 1st Class, Empty, Win!
You get to see the in-between places. You also see the rough parts of towns. And lots of graffiti. You are passing along an industrial transportation route. It is not always pretty.
Then another world bursts past your window. The pressure and sound hit you like a shock wave. Faces blur through your view. Another train passes in the other direction and just as abruptly disappears.
Train travel can be savored. Well, I savor all travel, but…. You spend a few moments in distant villages and roll through interesting towns. You see the station sign and have a few glimpses down the streets. Then you are in-between again. Moving on.
I enjoy almost everything about train travel. The stations, despite their minor dangers, present a mixture of people that you may not have time to see anywhere else.
Keleti Palyaudvar International Station, Budapest, Hungary
For a travel photographer trains give a tremendous introduction to new countries. If you travel light, it is easy to carry everything that you need on trains. There is usually more room for luggage than on a plane.
Going Light, Going Far, Working to Make Art
You keep moving, rumbling toward your goals. Trains provide a rich setting for anticipation and imagination. Long rides may eventually get a little tiring, but the further you go the more memories you carry. You are more a part of the countryside you are moving through than when you look down from 35,000 feet.
Friends, Castles, Adventures, Une Bonne Vie Dans Le Train, Najac, France
Here comes the train. Find your seat. Store your luggage. Sit back, put up your feet, and savor. Adventure awaits!
The arid remoteness of the High Atlas Mountains did not prepare me for the urban tumult of Casablanca.
I had spent several days walking in the lower part of the High Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco. The Berber guide who helped me explore had introduced me to kind people in small mountain villages. The long walks between villages passed over quiet rocky mountainsides. It was easy for my mind to wander and think about the mountain traditions and culture.
High Atlas Mts. Guided by Imrhan Omar
That came to an abrupt halt when I got off the train in Casablanca. First of all I thought I would become a casualty of the intense rivalry among the taxi drivers vying for my business. As it turned out the driver I ended up with didn’t know where my hotel was but drove around the old downtown neighborhoods until he found someone he could ask. I arrived safely, but it is always unnerving to get into a car with a stranger in a new city, especially after a nearly physical battle to win my business.
Casablanca is a huge city and some parts are in better shape than others. It is filled with intriguing sites, sounds, and smells. I only had two days before I flew to Milan, so I didn’t get to explore very much.
I was near the original old town (medina) but was surrounded by typical urban businesses and hotels. There were pockets of modern commercial enterprise and remnants of ancient walled city.
Because I enjoy walking with my camera to find interesting images I decided to walk across town toward the beach to see the famous King Hassan II Mosque. The only map I had was a small page torn out of a Morocco guidebook. Needless to say, it was lacking a lot of detail and streets. I got lost but asked for help and got directed back toward the beach.
I passed through some very old neighborhoods but saw lots of interesting parts of northern Casablanca.
Produce Market, Casablanca
The King Hassan II Mosque is spectacularly large. It is set on an expansive courtyard and is protected from the crashing Atlantic waves by a seawall on three sides. It is near the old medina and serves the same central community role as a large Gothic cathedral in a western European city.
Entering the King Hassan II Mosque
Worshipers streamed out of the old city across the courtyard and into the grounds of the mosque as the call to prayer sounded.
Interior Courtyard, King Hassan II Mosque
Everything about this mosque is massive.
Massive Doors, King Hassan II Mosque
The minaret is about ~210 m (689 ft.) tall. It is beautifully sculpted and has tile mosaics accenting even the highest sections. It had been a foggy morning at the beach, but eventually the clouds lifted.
Minaret, 210m Tall, King Hassan II Mosque
Minaret Ornamentation, King Hassan II Mosque
I spent several hours photographing, watching, and listening. Fortunately, my walk back to the hotel was much more efficient. Casablanca was not what I expected. It was more interesting and varied while still being walkable. It formed a strong impression and was a memorable north African city with rich history.
Within the maze of alleys and walls of Fez, Morocco there are many traditional artisans creating handmade products. The old medina (walled city) in Fez was founded in the 9th century and many of these skilled artists rely on methods used continuously since that time.
I hired a local Fez resident for a day to tour the old city and several artists cooperatives to learn about the culture and history of Fez. It was an interesting walking tour, primarily. But for the first stop we took a taxi to a ceramics cooperative.
The workers here produced a variety of pots for daily use and for tourist souvenirs. They also produced colorful tile for mosaics.
The work is labor intensive. The tile begins with mixing clay and water in large basins behind the main buildings. The mixing is done by one person tromping in the mixture to blend it to the right consistency. Then the mixture is formed into thin bricks that will be cut into the various shapes.
Clay Mixing Basin and Drying Tile Bricks
These tile bricks are dried outside by the sun and then stockpiled for winter tile production, since they are harder to dry during winter weather.
Stockpiled Tile Bricks
Cutting is done by hand with very sharp hammer tools. The finished tiles are precisely formed into surprising shapes such as stars and curved crescents. Each worker is assigned one shape and during each day produces a pile of tiles at their station.
Hand Cutting Tiles, Notice Tile Shapes at Lower Left
The tile is still used in decorative work on many kinds of new construction from simple stairs to panels at mosques.
Tiled Stairs in a Fez Restaurant
Tile Mosaic, King Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca
The pots are hand-spun and painted. They range from large water jugs and vases to small colorful pencil holders for tourists.
At the end of the tour I was taken to the store and only then realized that each cultural tour would also include an opportunity to purchase items to support the artists, and the tour guide who gets a commission, and the hotel who gets a commission for arranging the guide ….
Small Section of the Pottery Store
I bought some souvenir pots, but I started to worry because the day was just beginning and we were also going to learn about the “cultural traditions” at a rug cooperative and a leather works cooperative, with opportunities to support the artists there also. I hadn’t brought enough dirhams to buy something at each place and didn’t have room for them in my luggage anyway.
Fortunately my guide told me that since the medina was a UNESCO World Heritage site the artisans were supported with funding to help them continue to carry out the traditional arts. So I felt a little less pressure to buy a rug at the next stop, but only a little less pressure.
The walking tour through the old city was great and my guide was worth every dirham.
Walking down the main streets of the 9th century medina of Fez, Morocco can be an intense experience. The main streets in this case are narrow alleys filled with a crushing flood of mules, hand carts, vendors, tourists, worshipers, students, beggars, and street hustlers.
Hanging Out at the Mall, Early Morning
Vendor stalls crowd together on both sides of the streets and sell a wide variety of hand made items such as shoes, rugs, pottery, oils, and leather, along with food items that range from the ordinary to the very extraordinary.
Rue Talaa Seghira is one of the main streets that leads down through the medina toward the river. A medina is an ancient walled Arabic city. Fez has two medinas. The medina in these photos was established toward the end of the 9th century and contains the oldest continuously operating, degree granting university on Earth founded in 859.
Barely wide enough for a ....
When you pass through the gate into the old medina you enter a network of alleys and tunnels where cars do not fit. Finding your lodging and navigating the crowds and the “unofficial guides” is challenging, and at first it is very intimidating. It is one of those “dive in and walk with purpose” situations. But with the help of an official guide arranged through the hotel you can become familiar with the general layout and cultural traditions. It is still easy to get lost in the confusing maze if you are not very careful.
The vendor stalls are supplied by either mules or by hand carts. In fact, if you have either one of these items you are in business. Each morning before dawn the streets are swept by hand and the debris is carried away in mule saddlebags.
Being in the hand cart or mule transport business is not easy. But having this equipment is a major advantage.
Fez was one of my favorite places in Morocco. It is easy to feel that you have entered a different and ancient world. People, for the most part, treated me with respect and kindness. It was a dramatic and vivid experience!
Far away and long ago Berber traditions were built on these rocky mountainsides in Morocco.
The feeling of isolation is still strong, although connections are growing.
Transportation and Freight
The sounds that remind me of life in the High Atlas Mountains are mule hooves scraping on exposed rock, long harvesting sticks striking branches in walnut trees, the overlapping calls-to-prayer from adjacent villages echoing through the canyons, a distant, ancient truck straining up a long grade (on one of the few roads), Berber greetings that I did not understand, and laughter.
Life here requires hard work and toughness. And good mules. The trails that connect villages to markets are well-established, but steep and narrow. Mules carry most of the supplies to the villages and they carry the local products back to the markets.
Agriculture on these steep mountains seems impractical, but their terraces are productive. Irrigation water is delivered in ditches from streams in the high peaks. Apples and walnuts provide income while other crops provide food and tea for the villagers.
Homes are constructed out of the materials at hand. Electricity has reached some villages and satellite dishes bring news, entertainment, and European football.
The villages are separated by long quiet walks. The vegetation is very sparse so the scenery is stark. The mind has plenty of time to wander.
Centuries and generations have strengthened village traditions, but there is also interest in new connections, by some residents. Visitors are ignored or treated with respect. A local guide is very helpful for explaining the culture and for communications.
The High Atlas Mountains are a quiet and powerful place. They are a place well worth exploring. Accommodations range from luxurious to rustic, but the experiences are all very rich.
It is a long ride from Tanger, Morocco to Marrakech. It’s not an express experience. That song is wrong.
Morocco is about the same size as California in the U.S.A. Instead of being on the Pacific its long shoreline is on the Atlantic Ocean. The capital, Rabat, is on the coast and the fabled Casablanca is south of Rabat. Both of these coastal cities are large and filled with business and industry. To the east of Morocco is Algeria which is extensively arid much like California’s eastern neighbor Nevada.
Unlike California, Morocco has a train system that reaches many parts of the country. Morocco used to be a French protectorate, so the Moroccan train system is influenced by the strong French railway. All communications are in Moroccan Arabic and French, this includes signs and spoken announcements.
Departure Board, Fes, Morocco
The Moroccan train system seems to work. The French and Swiss systems are more punctual and fancier, but you can get around Morocco reliably by train, unlike California. And the Moroccan rail system is affiliated with bus lines which extend public transportation further throughout the country. You can not buy train tickets until you are in Morocco, but it is an easy thing to do at the stations and the attendants speak many languages.
I didn’t take the train from Tanger to Marrakech. I first went to Fes. It is still a long ways from Tanger. The Tanger and Fes train stations are beautiful and new. The ride is interesting in the same way that most train routes pass through the edges of towns and the back sides of commercial districts, so you don’t see the best parts of towns. The countryside is mostly gently rolling to hilly. The soils seem like to they could be very productive but in late September there weren’t many crops growing.
Fes was an amazing experience. I had a room in a beautifully restored old house in the ancient walled city. These old Arabic walled cities are called medinas and this one dated from the 9th century. Wandering the narrow alleys with the crushing crowds was intimidating at first, especially carrying camera equipment. I hired a local guide through the hotel. He was born in the medina and has lived his entire life navigating the alleys and market stalls. He taught me a lot about the culture and traditions and took me to many out-of-the-way places. As with every guide apparently, he also took me to places where I could support the local craftsmen, ensuring that he would also get a commission. He was kind enough to tell me that the artist cooperatives are funded by UNESCO as a recognized World Heritage Site. So when the hard sales pitch was presented I didn’t have to feel bad for causing starvation and the end of the rug industry in Morocco. Fes is an ancient religious and academic center and is intense.
I did finally ride the train to Marrakech, and from Fes it is still an eight hour ride. And it is a long eight hours. You pass through Rabat and keep going and going. One recommendation, don’t drink the luke-warm coffee on the cart in the train. I regretted that, but I won’t go into details. Let’s just say the water wasn’t boiled.
I only went to Marrakech in order to meet up with a guide service to walk in the High Atlas Mountains to the south. Marrakech has exploded with new unimaginative hotels and apartments and is still growing. I didn’t spend much time there.
Since this posting is about the rail system I won’t go into the walking experiences at this time. My last ride was on the train from Marrakech to Casablanca where I flew to Milano, Italy to photograph in the Dolomite Mountains.
The Moroccan trains can seem crowded, even in first class. Six people are in a compartment. But the seats are comfortable and the mixture of languages and the exotic north African scenes out the window make a captivating experience. I enjoy traveling by train and the Moroccan railway is a pleasant way to experience the country.
Tangerian dreams. No, this is not about the German electronic band Tangerine Dreams. This is about Tanger, Morocco.
The Moroccan French spelling is Tanger, but it is also often spelled Tangier or Tangiers. For many people Tanger is the gateway to north Africa.
An entire continent lies beyond the ancient streets. But within those old, worn alleys and boulevards you enter a powerful swirling mixture of exotic smells (from street vendor stalls and other less welcome aromas), the intriguing sounds of Arabic music, donkey carts, motorcycle pedicabs, and strong unease from real and imagined dangers. Unease that is constantly reinforced by hustlers and aggressive “guides for hire” lining the streets.
Tanger is a gritty industrial port. It is a place where the rule is ‘do what you can get away with’. It is a transit point and meeting place of cultures. It has long been the main entry for travelers from Spain. Travelers from Europe face an intense change in culture when they get off the ferry from Algeciras, Spain.
The new ferry terminal in Tanger is far to the east of the city. After a long bus ride you are dumped out in a square directly in front of the old ferry terminal. The bus is immediately surrounded by street entrepreneurs. The luggage bays are opened and it seems to take forever to get out of the bus to fight your way through the crowd to protect your luggage, which you hope is still under the bus. This is not xenophobia or paranoia. I had to physically take my luggage away from people. You have to make it clear that you do not need help getting your luggage and that you don’t need help finding a better/cheaper hotel. It is best to know where your hotel is and to head there with dispatch.
One very persistent hustler wouldn’t take “No, merci” for an answer. I tried to walk away only to be confronted by a colleague of his who reassured me, “He is just trying to help you. He works for the tourist office. Where are you from?” Of course they offered no identification.
Somehow I was not reassured by one street hustler vouching for another one. And that was the first of many times that I heard that phrase, “where are you from?” It was a device to start conversations and to begin the hustle, tailored to your country.
The reason I tell this story about Tanger is that most of the rest of my time in Morocco was interesting and memorable in very positive ways. Tanger is not the place to form an opinion about Morocco or north Africa. Tanger is a place where opportunity is made by aggression.
I later hired guides through hotels and travel services as I traveled south. I learned a great deal and met many kind and generous people walking through Fes and tiny villages in the High Atlas Mountains.
Tanger is still a place that stirs the imagination when you think about it from afar. It is a place of international intrigue and fable. It is easy to dream about what it is like and be entirely wrong.
During recent years it appears that construction and redevelopment have improved some parts of Tanger. If you walk from the port to the train station, you walk down a broad modern boulevard along the shore. Restaurants line the beach and new buildings are on the other side of the street. The train station is a sparkling new efficient building. But you also see half-completed or half-demolished buildings which are signs of the building boom hitting economic recession.
The hotels in the port area are mostly old and run-down. The walk up the hill from the port is like walking a gauntlet. The rough cobblestones make it hard to wind your way through the hustlers lining the street on both sides. I was not surprised to find my “Tourist Office” helper halfway up the hill leaning against a wall with friends. He took the opportunity to taunt me again.
With old hotel windows open wide for ventilation the view over the port is striking. But the smells and noises are strong reminders of where you are.
This photograph was taken out the hotel window. The newer buildings along the shore show the recent revitalization. But this view does not convey the pressures of walking the streets. I only felt less secure later when I was photographing on the streets of Casablanca at night. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea anyway.
I am probably not being fair to Tanger basing my opinion on a very brief visit. But my favorite part of Tanger was the train station and the excitement of leaving for Fes. Fes and the High Atlas Mountains were tremendous experiences and I was happy to leave Tanger behind.
When I dream of Tanger now I have vivid memories to base it on. To me it is a place to get on the train. But then again, maybe Tangerians wouldn’t dream of living in my town either!
On a ridge in the High Atlas Mountains a Berber family has built a strong corral for their livestock. A discarded 55 gallon drum is the crowning touch.
This is a brief story of survival.
The rest of the corral wall is made from material available on the mountainside. Stones were either picked up or pried out of the cracked bedrock and hauled into place. They are stacked without mortar.
There is no road so the only access is by foot. Supplies are carried by mule. It is a long walk to a market village. The path is well worn.
There is no house here. There is a small stone shelter for the livestock.
There are very few trees in the arid High Atlas Mountains. Wood is not readily available but the corral needed a durable door.
A 55 gallon steel drum becomes nearly worthless to people in wealthy industrialized countries when the petroleum or chemicals are used up. Around the world these discarded drums provide building materials for shelter and even musical instruments.
This Berber family cut open a drum and hammered it flat. It was combined with other scrap metal and a few branches to form the door that protects their wealth-their livestock.
I am not sure what the purpose of the brush on top of the wall is, perhaps just decoration.
Along the trails in these mountains you come across these stone corrals and shelters. There are no habitations within miles. This is the domain of shepherds who roam the mountains with their mules, goats, and sheep.
These are quiet places. But these structures help families survive. It is an ancient existence without many material possessions.
Kind and humble people are putting their lives on the line for change.
Taghyeer is the Arabic word for change. Maybe it is not the perfect word for the type of change that is sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East, but it is as close as I could get.
My brief exposure to Arabic and Berber cultures in Morocco gave me a glimpse of the humanity and strengths of these people. Today I worry about the people that I met and the friends that I made. While Morocco has not been the center of the tumult, its society has been strained. There have been calls for change.
In other countries the demands for change have produced heroism, tragedy, violence, passion, hatred, love, patriotism, tribalism, destruction, confrontation, reconciliation, capitulation, terror, and jubilation. They have shown us the entire range of human interaction and emotion.
They have captured our imaginations. Pious, quiet elders have stood at the barricades next to mothers, doctors, scientists, unemployed people, and emerging young thinkers. In other places the confrontations have been violent and grisly.
These are old traditional cultures and I am sure that there are many opinions about what should be changed and what is unchangeable.
Young people have grown into leaders motivated by a profound belief in the justness of their cause. They have communicated and organized despite institutional and technological barriers and threats. They strive for freedom and opportunity, but built on traditions and values that they share with their elders. Entire multi-generational families stand in the squares together. They don’t want to tear down their countries. They want to build them up and make them better.
We don’t know how these changes will turn out. Core human values will continue in these ancient cultures. There will be failures and sadness. There will be new freedoms and fulfillment. New leaders will have a lifetime of work ahead to plan and build a different society. Some defining traditions will not change.
The strength of their yearning for change can be felt around the world.
It is a time of peril and celebration, sometimes on the same street.
As you plod through the tiny Berber village you can hear hypnotic north African rhythms floating over the arid, rocky mountainside. The insistent hand drumming pulses over the thumping base that you can feel. The catchy Arabic lyrics trade call and reply with a soaring string refrain and form an addictive repetitive hook. A flute completes the sound and your imagination drifts to a smokey nomadic tent surrounded by a vast desert.
Today I would like to take you to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. If you like places that feel ‘far away’ this is your kind of place.
By the way, this morning I made a quick scan of the origins of some of the people who visited this blog last week. I can only determine the city and country of the web host, but it is still interesting. They were from various places in the USA and from Russia, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands, England, Japan, Pakistan, and Ireland. I hope that you enjoy these brief travel escapes and I appreciate your interest!!
Now let’s walk along together through a tiny village at the base of a long mountain slope. The trail enters the village from below. It is only wide enough for mules to pass. Stone houses and their porches crowd against the trail from both sides. A few villagers sit on their steps as you pass. They do not want to be photographed, so you have to store these images in your head. Can you hear the north African rhythms in the background?
The ancient homes were built mostly with local materials. Stones pried from the exposed bedrock are held together by clay-rich mud. Recently, imported building blocks, mortar, and stucco have been added to some of the homes. Even though the area has only had electricity for 10 years many homes already have satellite dishes.
Narrow trails switchback up steep slopes leading away from the village. Drivable roads are new to some villages, but are still rare. Most travel is by foot. Mules and donkeys are used to carry supplies and transport walnuts, livestock, and other products to market villages.
In places the trails are only scratchings on steeply tilted rock peppered with loose gravel. A careless step would lead to a shredding slide down the rocky slopes. And these are the easy lower trails between villages that are well-traveled.
When you leave a village behind the mountain is quiet and the views are expansive. The trail aims for a low gap on the distant ridge. In English a pass like this is referred to as a saddle, but in Berber they are called a tizi. You can see the tizi in the distance and it looks like a short walk. For hours it looks like a short walk. Distances and elevation are deceptive. Slowly you gain altitude and near the tizi. In sheltered pockets there are a few straggly low trees. At the tizi you take a well-deserved rest. It is time to drink and have lunch. The dry air has taken lots of water from you. The views are even more spectacular, but the valley villages where you started from still look like a short walk away.
On the long descent on the other side you pass roaming goats and herdsmen. A few stone corrals and huts are the only signs of human habitation. After many switchbacks you spot another little stone village near the base of the mountain. You are getting tired and it is a welcome sight, especially since it looks like it is just a short walk away…but again it is a long time before you reach the gîte d’etape where you will eat and sleep.
These Berber villages are interesting and unique. Mountain tourism is a significant economic factor for some of them. Other villages ‘turn away’ as you walk through the edge of the village through their scattered walnut trees. It is hard to describe how an entire village can ‘turn away’, but that is the feeling that you get in a few places. Sometimes in remote villages you only get glimpses of the stone houses through the walnut trees. If you pass someone on the trail they are not rude, but you get the feeling that their day would have been better if you had stayed home. Their culture and traditions have been tested for generations. This is true of most rural people in other countries too. They have their tried-and-true ways of doing things and they are content to be left alone. In other villages people are friendly, even jovial. Traveling with a local Berber guide helps a great deal. Wherever you walk though, if you are respectful you are treated with respect in return.
My walks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco were short easy strolls in the foothills. I barely entered the real mountain terrain. I also saw only the periphery of the culture in an area that has become easily accessible from Marrakech. But my brief exposure still felt like I was visiting distant cultures. And I met many friendly and helpful people. I still smile when I think about some of the unexpected humor that villagers showed. A good practical joke knows no cultural boundaries. At times the joke was at my expense, but that is OK. We all laughed.
If you are able to visit Morocco, the High Atlas Mountains are well worth a week or more. There are many local guides and muleteers available. In Imlil, Morocco I recommend the super guide Imrhan Omar. He works through Kasbah du Toubkal. Omar was raised in an adjacent village and seems to know everyone in the villages you walk through. He is a native Berber speaker and his sense of humor makes every situation non-threatening and comfortable.
I hope that you enjoyed these few moments in the mountains of southern Morocco. You can view more photographs from Morocco by following the Photography link above.
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!!!
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.