Telouet and Ait ben Haddou

I found Morocco the least interesting place we’ve visited, which is not so much a knock on Morocco as a testament to how fabulously captivating and invigorating our journey’s country-stops have been. After Marrakech, we spent two days driving through the Atlas Mountains on demandingly narrow and windy roads,

DSC03876_DxO.jpgand visiting two historic sites, one barely on the beaten track and the other of movie and vernacular architectural fame.

The first was in Telouet, the former stronghold of the leading French collaborator preceding Morocco’s independence in 1956.

Only a few ornate rooms survive of his Kasbah, and — in their materiality, design intricacy, and integrated composition — they offer a splendid example of Islamic decoration/craft/art.

DSC03887_DxO DSC03892_DxO.jpg

One central room is spectacular.

DSC03899_DxO.jpgSarah, Gideon, and I had an ongoing discussion both about the status of Islamic decoration/craft/art, as whatever its intricacies and pleasing qualities may be, their status as one or the other or the third seems not so obvious, at least to me. A reason I was less enamored with Morocco is that, if its geometric patterning in tile, plaster, and wood is art (which I tend to doubt), then it is art that fails to hold, let alone fascinate, me. Sarah tends to come down on the other side, but I suspect she sort-of agrees with me – Sarah, it’s time to rise to the challenge! Gideon has sided with his Mom but that’s because he sides with himself.

The second, Ait Ben Haddou, is an intact, abandoned town that speaks visually for itself, a fan favorite as the busloads of day-trippers attest.

DSC03849_DxOIt is famous as the stage set for films, including most famously Gladiator. We walked in Russell Crowe’s footsteps!!! One merchant (a few structures house tourist-friendly goods) proudly showed us the room in his building where Crowe was imprisoned, and insisted, very good-naturedly, that he and I be photographed there together.

DSC03954_DxOHe told us that he was in the film (among five others) and even the princely sum (which for per-capita-income-challenged Morocco it is) that he received daily for six months for his Gladiatorial film work. I imagined I had remembered him in the film, even though I saw it when it came out twenty years ago. I’ll have to check. The town itself is picturesque and suggestive from afar as it steps us the hill,

DSC03941_DxODSC03944_DxOfrom which it seems to burst forth fully formed and colored in its earthy turrets and more, but far less impressive to walk through which experientially is nothing special. Gideon dubbed it a dud and even Sarah, who sees it as a vernacular Parthenon, admitted performatively after several dozen minutes (“I’m ready to go”) that there’s not much to see there beyond its overall, stunning profile.

Gideon loves mountains, and the Atlas captured his fancy.

DSC03869_DxOHe would have liked to spend several more days in them driving and hiking. They were unexpectedly beautiful, though my need, as our driver, to stay utterly focused on the guardrail-less sliver-thin mountain roads, led me to miss most of it. But the oohs and aahs, and the more evolutionarily advanced modes of expressed-appreciation which Gideon showered us with left the basis for his determination to return to the Atlas unmistakable. Unfortunately for him we had to move on, or, even if we didn’t absolutely have to, we did anyway.

A day of impromptu R&R by the pool in Marrakech, was followed by two days in the vibrant if tourist-site-poor, white city of eponymous Casablanca, which we all really liked and, for its grittiness and vibrancy, liked much more than the far more celebrated Marrakech. We left Morocco without having seen the north, including Fes and Meknes, and having (after Namibia) skipped the desert. I feel no need to return. Sarah would like to. And Gideon intends to. The Atlas Mountains call.

— Danny


Much more than in any other place we’ve been, I felt our strangeness here.

DSC03752_DxOWe spent nearly two weeks in Morocco, and neither Gideon nor Danny nor I, all of us curious and sociable people, developed the slightest connection to anyone. Not to the taxi drivers or the hotel proprietors, not to the food servers, not to the merchants in the souks, not to the people we encountered in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa (the medina’s huge public square),


not to the kids playing in the alleyways,  DSC03635_DxODSC03634_DxOwhom we passed on the way home to our homey little riad near the Kasbah mosque.

Is it the language barrier? We speak pidgin French, if that, and French is no longer mandatory in Moroccan schools. For younger people, which is most Moroccan people, Arabic and Berber predominate. We repeatedly attempted to break through the conversational barricades. Eventually I concluded that the impediments were not linguistic, nor were they economic. After all, we’ve encountered plenty of poverty elsewhere, never to the detriment of social intercourse.

DSC03759_DxODSC03579_DxOPerhaps it’s just my imagination, but to me, it felt as though two linked dynamics were getting in the way. There’s the apparently inherent tension between modernity and Islamic orthodoxy. And then, there’s education.

Upon our arrival in Casablanca, we selected a vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant (a bit like identifying a needle in a haystack) about a 35 or 40-minute walk from our Air BnB near the Hassan II mosque. It was early evening, and from the moment we walked onto the street, Danny pronounced, correctly, the street culture more vibrant there — less tourist-oriented — than what we’d encountered in Marrakesh. Women hauling groceries, kids kidding around. Passing one café, we noticed perhaps 40 folding chairs lined up in semicircular rows, all facing a television mounted high on the back wall. On the tube, a soccer match. In every single one of those seats sat a man. When we walked by another café, same thing. Then another. And another. Gideon took out his phone and Googled something like “Morocco Casablanca football”, and informed us that Casablanca’s club team was playing in the semifinals of the African Champion’s League.

Okay, so more men like to watch soccer than women. But no women? Really, none.

Where are the women? I ask Danny. No reply. We’re walking, we’re all busy looking, so I dropped it. But later, after a few more cafes, I raise the subject again.

Don’t they want to be with women?

Doesn’t it get a little oppressive hanging out only with men?

Don’t they like women?

Walking the streets of Casablanca, and earlier, of Marrakesh, I found that heavily draped women passed me by without looking up, much less smiling.


I wondered: When these women, heads wrapped in hijabs, or completely covered in black niqabs, pass me, do they excuse or condemn me for my attire?

DSC03583_DxODo some think, infidel, and silently reprehend me for dressing “immodestly”?

Trying to puzzle the question out. Perhaps it’s like passing by a nun. Nuns always smile at me when I pass by them (I’m a big eye-contact pedestrian), and when they do, I always quietly muse that this woman must be very kind.

When I finally voice these thoughts aloud, I realize they’re not the same. Nuns have elected to devote their life to Jesus, but a woman can choose not to do that and still be a earnest believer and a moral person. In the more orthodox forms of Islam, at least, refusing to abide by the laws of dress is an affront to Allah; in that case, a woman passing me regarding my western garb might well disapprove. Certainly that’s not always so, but sometimes I did get the impression that I was being judged, and that those judgements were not positive.

One day, Danny and I went to work out that a nearby sports club. The women’s locker room was located up on the second floor. After having changed there, I was shepherded into a workout room different from the spacious, well-ventilated gym on the ground floor, where I’d expected to go. That one, I realized, was visible from the street, and filled exclusively with men. My workout space, about one-third the size, had a wall of windows, a wall of mirrors, and perhaps fifteen rickety machines. As I cranked my way through half an hour on an ancient recumbent bike, several women came, pumped or treaded, then departed. All wore multiple layers of loose clothing even though the temperature in the poorly-ventilated, low-ceilinged room must have exceeded eighty degrees.

I returned to the women’s locker room, which was absolutely sweltering. Even after having showered in cool water, the moment I turned the nozzle off, I began to sweat again. As I dressed, I watched one woman donning her outfit as she chatted with a friend. Undershirt. Then bra. Full-length leggings. Long-sleeved shirt. Sweat was pouring down her back, I noticed. Over all this, she donned a full-length robe, and wrapped her hair into a scarf.

In any case, it does seem as though men own Morocco’s public realm.

DSC03654_DxODSC03658_DxODon’t misunderstand: we encountered women everywhere we went. Women in burqas, women in niqabs, women in hijabs (that’s most of them), women wearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts (mainly tourists). The women in burqas and full-length gowns tended to be older. Almost always, they were sitting with one another, off by themselves, occasionally with a son or a child.


A benchfull of such women became enraged when I snapped a photo of them, disrespectfully deciding that my picture was more important than their fantasized privacy. (I was pretty far away, so I hadn’t anticipated their ire.)

DSC03664_DxOIn our perambulations we saw husbands walking with wives, not so frequently. Fathers with their families, almost never. In the countryside’s public places we saw practically no women at all.

The official literacy rate for Moroccan women is listed as forty percent. From what we encountered, I’d bet it’s lower than that. Outside the cities, we didn’t really see many children in school — and we saw a lot of children. Even when we did see children in school uniforms, it seemed that the school day finished quite early. Even the (all male) taxi drivers in Marrakesh gave indications of illiteracy: we’d show them the address of where we wanted to go on our phone, and they’d gaze up at us silently from the driver’s seat, perplexed.

Aside from negotiating a price or a ride, I realized, there was little to discuss. The educational gulf was that wide.

— Sarah


Taking Us to Marrakesh

The flight to Morocco lasted twenty-five hours, thanks to two things. Nonstop flights among African countries are often non-existent and connections can be circuitous and rare. Many travelers between two African countries find themselves connecting in Europe. We had that option for booking a path between Windhoek and Casablanca, but instead opted for the Gulf, going through Doha with a midnight connection between the two flights, as this offered the best (which is different from a good) itinerary. Then, a couple or weeks before the trip, Qatar Airways rescheduled our initial departure (perhaps owing to the tiff with the Saudis and others, preventing Qatar from using a lot of airspace), rendering our connection moot, and mandating that we layover in Doha for seven hours, from midnight to seven AM. As we have become practiced long-haul travelers, the twenty-five hours did not pass too badly, in part thanks to the airport lounge we could use, where Gideon and Sarah copped beds for sleeping. I stayed up the whole journey, and happily worked and worked and worked, off and (mainly) on for the long day. As I had a manuscript I was close to finishing writing at hand and I wanted to make a full run-through it, I had (for me) a perfect sustained project to keep me going for the trip.

We arrived to the ninety plus degree heat of Morocco after spending a month in overall coolish (some warm) weather. If I were differently oriented, I would offer a disquisition on the many ins-and-outs (more like ups-and-downs) of weather for our travels. All I’ll say here is that the heat was at first appreciated, though, especially as time wore on, less so by me than by Sarah and especially Gideon.

Upon landing, we procured our rental and headed for Marrakesh, which, three hours later, presented such a charming and salmon colored (the hue of virtually all the buildings) bustling face,

DSC03728_DxO_DxODSC03758_DxOthat Gideon and Sarah, immediate enthusiasts, lobbied for staying even longer than the planned week. This was even before we saw our Airbnb riad in the medina, with which they instantly fell in love.

DSC03812_DxODSC03815_DxOA consistent theme of our time in Morocco was that I liked what we saw and what we did somewhat less well than they did. To what extent this was owing to our different appreciations of the temperature, different temperaments regarding the hustle and hustling of the medina (where we walked with big targets on our fronts and backs), or differential ability to ignore or look beyond the manifestly subordinated place of women, rather than to different judgments about what is interesting or meritorious, is hard to know. Nonetheless, Morocco certainly presented a different face, or many different faces, from what else we had seen in Africa. This alone made it interesting.

Our stay in Marrakech centered on the medina, which is the interior of the old walled city, where we became instantly almost locals,

DSC03570_DxOtraversing the narrow alleyways of our residential area to the end of what was a dead end where our entrance lay. Once inside, courtyard open to the sky,

DSC03814_DxOwe were contained in our own mid-century, stoned Moroccan world, except for the five-times daily (the first occurred at 5:45 AM), insistent call to prayers to the various nearby mosques, which loudspeakers made impossible to ignore.


Kasbah Mosque, Marrakesh

I joked with Sarah that it was great, just as it would be to have a guy put his head through your window and shout into your house. Anyway, we rather easily got used to this characteristic feature of Islamic countries, though we also learned that the volume and character of the call to the faithful varies. In Casablanca, we stayed a (long) stone’s throw from the gargantuan Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco and one of the largest anywhere.


Hassah II Mosque, Casablanca

Its call to prayers are less intrusive, more subtle, and, to my untrained ear, more melodious.

The medina, with narrow streets and pathways, ancient chaotic feel, non-stop small commercial activity – an offer, a deal, a special price just for you, at every step – is worth a visit or two, so you get a sense of what the world of the Marrakech, perhaps the Arab, market once was like.

DSC03585_DxOOf course, today most of it is oriented to tourists, with on the whole more appealing offerings (rugs, ceramics, silver and beads in all kinds of constellations)

DSC03578_DxOthan the norm, but especially where we were, it also provided the lifeline of daily needs for the inhabitants – small grocers, stores with household essentials, laundries, and cafes for the men (singly, paired, in clusters) to while away the day.

After a few days of wandering the pathways and byways of the medina, including in the further walled-in Kasbah, and seeing its prosaic and more touristically sacred sights, we had had our fill of the new-old (which by then had lost much of its luster), and spent more time in the unabashedly newer part of Marrakesh, which is a modern and expanding city, except perhaps in its monochromatic insistence. (The riad, open to the sky and with its roof deck, continued to capture Sarah’s and Gideon’s fancy, while I had had more than enough of its walled-in offerings.) We finally got around to visiting the Jardin Marjorelle,

DSC03679_DxODSC03675_DxODSC03677_DxOa garden of desert plants, purchased and rejuvenated by Yves Saint Lauren and his partner Pierre Berge. It is as memorable and spectacular a contained garden as we have seen, a fiesta of specimen planting and display, with cacti of every sort as beautiful and wholesome as even your imagination could want. Marrakesh has its charms and its magical salmony-colored quality, rendering it, together with its impressively massive walls and the medina they enclose, a city of distinction, and worth visiting. It’s historic and contemporary marquee attractions – including palaces and tombs, museums and villas – are however mainly underwhelming.

DSC03681_DxOBut the Jardin Marjorelle… the magical Jardin Marjorelle…

— Danny

It’s a flat-out 10

There was much more of magnificence and otherwise noteworthiness in Namibia. The massively wide gravel roads which connect the different parts of the country (only a few paved roads between cities exist), which make for an unusual driving and touring experience. DSC03465_DxOThe stunning and varied non-Namib landscapes, especially between Sesriem and Walvis Bay, which Sarah described moving through — having over the last few months experienced a range of unforgettable scenic road trips — as one of the best drives ever.20170913_182626(0)_DxO The idiosyncratic hotels we stayed in in the desert, the first being an expensive contemporary castle (at least in wannabe form) DSC00966_DxO_DxO_DxOand the second being an inexpensive “desert farm” with as beautiful a desert garden as you could want. DSC03381_DxO.jpg

The sunsets. DSC00971The sunrises. DSC03274_DxO_DxOThe walk from the castle hotel just out there into the desert, with the sense that we could have gone on forever (or until we died of thirst). DSC00977_DxO_DxOThe totally (–>this is no hyperbole) unexpected excellent coffee shop and bakery in aptly named Solitude (it’s a few structures strong) — started fifteen years ago by a man who fled his broken life, started anew in this middle-of-nowhere, and, loving it, never left. The lovely small book store in Swakopmund, with books in three sections, one for German, one for Afrikaans (probably, the lingua franca of Namibia), and one for English, and containing an impressive multilingual section on Namibia with many books on the colonial period and the genocide. The good-naturedness and easy-goingness of all the people we met. DSC01017The personalized, memorable short week we spent there made Namibia (for the supertough raters) a nine and (for the simply experientially-tuned) a flat out ten.



Six months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to locate Namibia on an unmarked map, except to say that it’s in Africa. Danny and Gideon collaborated intensely on this part of the trip, so I decided to simply sit in the passenger seat and enjoy the view of the road, letting them decide upon places to skip and places to stop, and for how long.

The flight from Cape Town to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, took us up and over some of the Atlantic coastline before circling back over land. No, dirt. Or dirt and sand. As we neared our destination, dozens of what looked like dirt paths appeared on the surface of this parched land, lines stretching miles from one location to another without any clear signs of why one would embark upon a journey where the road began, nor travel it, nor reach the equally vacant destination visible at its other end.

Those dirt paths turned out to be roads, and they constitute most of Nambia’s transportation infrastructure. DSC03249_DxOOnly one paved (in local argot, sealed) highway, admittedly with arterial branches, stretches from north to south; a second, west-east, connects the adjacent towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund on the Atlantic with Windhoek. This one runs through the most economically developed regions of the country. Mostly, mines: diamond mines, copper mines, tungsten mines, and two of the top-ten uranium mines in the world.

Hiss, Mom, Gideon advised as we passed it. That’s what they make nukes with.

The first time I’d heard the name Swakopmund was when we asked Jan, the proprietor of the Witsieshoek Lodge in South Africa’s Drakensburg, where he came from. He replied, uttering his hometown’s name with swagger – SWA KUP MUND—and from then on Danny, Gideon and I could utter the word no other way. As if this remote city – town, really—were in actuality the unspoken center of the earth. “It’s a strange place,” Jan continued. “Completely German. Like a little German city, set on the coast of the Atlantic in the emptiest part of Southern Africa.”

That sold me. We must go. We’d planned to anyway, because it self-advertises as the extreme adventure capital of Southern Africa, and Gideon was determined to hurl himself out of an airplane in tandem with some stranger to whom he would entrust his very life. (As it turned out, he never did. Too cloudy, too cold.) But my determination became relevant during our visit to Sossusvlei, when the possibility of skipping Swakopmund arose more than once. And not without reason. The driving distances in Namibia seem absolutely endless: desolate hours upon hours pass, and you begin to feel as though you absolutely absolutely MUST be approaching your destination, when a quick check of the road map or the GPS ETA reveals that you’re less than halfway there, and before you lies miles, endless miles, of scrub brush, heat, and emptiness.

DSC03414_DxOThe wide, long, rattling journey from Sossusvlei to Swakopmund will surely always be one of most beautiful drives I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy. It’s not spectacular, like the drive from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Sea Ranch on the Pacific Coast, or the drive from Geneva to Lausanne. You really have to watch. I passed the hours gazing out onto these often flat, sometimes rolling expanses of land, parsing out how the sense of deep space came mostly from variations in color saturation, hue, and temperature, DSC03439_DxO_DxOand noticing subtle shifts in the layered bands of browns, grays, thin, struggling greens. DSC03256_DxO_DxO_DxOWhen the arid ground shifted from flat and sandy to inclined and rockier, my heart leapt, delighting in the textural variation.DSC03452_DxONothing, nothing, nothing. Until you realize that nothing is something. Burrow into these muted colors and thin layers, into this topography. This landscape settles inside you, then stays.

We’re going to that little German city, I kept thinking, perched on a remote coast of southwest Africa.

A little history here. Germany unified much later than many other European countries and, mainly landlocked, had no fleet. So by the 1880s, whereas England, France, and the Netherlands all had multiple, economically vibrant colonies begotten during the so-called Scramble for Africa, Germany, an aspirant to world power, was bereft.

Southern Africa had been almost completely carved up with the exception of the land that is now Namibia. This arid desert was unclaimed, except of course by the peoples who had always lived there, the Herero, Nama and San tribes, who lived in mutual enmity, competing over land and resources. Germany settled, and in the subsequent years, grabbed more, then more. The indigenous peoples had the audacity to believe that the land they and their ancestors had always inhabited was in fact theirs. Despite their enmity, they unified, forming an army to rebel against the German occupation. The German colonists’ response was swift, and brutal: by the end of 1905, somewhere between 24,000 and 100,000 Herero and Nama had been starved or slaughtered.

The end of the Swakopmund-bound drive comes suddenly. Civilization!

DSC03514_DxO_DxO_DxO.jpgPaved streets. A new shopping mall under construction, outside of town. Two-story concrete frame buildings – nearly everything is concrete frame, not steel– housing the warehouses and offices of various local companies.

Then, suddenly again: Victorian buildings everywhere. Some sedate in their detailing, others florid.


Notice Atlas on the corner, holding up the world


Churches, commercial blocks, a post office.

DSC03517_DxO At the edge of the commercial area, near the shore, sits a little enclosed complex with an arcaded courtyard and a charming lookout tower; once, it housed a boarding school. DSC03498_DxO

Tastefully restored arts and crafts detailing grace the pilaster capitals and string courses.


Most of the earliest buildings are proudly dated: 1904.

They slaughter the local population, then build, Danny said grimly. The genocide ended in 1905. Later that same day in the main public square, we ran across the gruesome statue Danny mentioned in the previous post, and then, nearby, an equally unsettling sight: this monument commemorating German soldiers who died in both World War I — AND World War II — surrounded by a small little fence. DSC03524_DxO_DxO.jpgTo locals, this place, like the graciously-planted, serpentine beachside pathways, was just another instance of tidy Swakopmund’s gracious provision of landscaping and street furniture.


Beachfront landscaping, with bike path at left


Shopping typically figures hardly at all into our traveling lexicon, but the merchants of Swakopmund have figured out that while its more adventurous visitors risk their lives on this or that perilous thrill, their more sober companions might well seek alternative forms of entertainment. We found a nice pedestrian shopping area, new, but in the Swakopmundian, quasi-Germanic mode. DSC03489_DxOIn it was an excellent new-and-antiquarian bookstore, filled with German-speaking latte-drinkers and German-language paperbacks. DSC03506_DxOWe poked around for a good half hour, turning up a battered Herero-German dictionary, published in 1904.

Must have been early in the year.


Sossusvlei’s Sand Dunes

Beauty in desolation.


That dot on the upper right is Sarah, descending from Dune 40

When you see a documentary on the Namib desert, it emphasizes how life flourishes even in the forbidding landscape of the oldest desert on earth, three hundred million years strong. When you are there and in the neighboring desert regions, you notice the sporadic desert shrubs and plants, and if you look closely enough a few bugs, but they appear as occasional notes within the operatic majesty of the withering landforms with their textures and colors themselves. I am well-aware of the current condition, technologically enabled, of being able to see beauty in what for millennia must have inspired fear and thoughts of enervation and death, which must have precluded feelings and thoughts of beauty, let alone of the sublime, a word which is not hyperbolic to convey what it is to stand before the dunes and behold.

Sossusvlei, as the region is called. We drove past dunes.

DSC03296_DxO_DxOWe gazed upon them. We walked past and around them. We climbed them. We (Gideon and Sarah) stood astride them and surveyed the dominion. Gideon lay on them. He even, unsuccessfully, tried to roll down them, only to discover that they enveloped and captured his body as they had his imagination and soul.

The dunes are massively high, some more than three-hundred meters. Their forms are beautiful, bordering on the perfect. Yet their color and texture occupy pride of place: The velvety burnt orange at any distance — far, medium, or close-up looking down at your bare feet while climbing.


The unimaginably fine grained, soft, and flowing look and feel to the sand with those same benuded feet and with cupped and finger-sifting hands. The multi-modal sensation that you are walking and sinking a cushiony bit with every step in a place like no other on earth.

Driving from Sesriem, the barely-a-settlement at the entrance to the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park (more than five times larger than Yellowstone), on the lone road through the dunescape, we marveled at the sand giants, pyramidical and conical, on both sides, stopping at Dune 40 for two hours of beholding, climbing, and contemplating, the three principal activities that compose experiencing this special landscape. I reached my vertiginous limit about a third of the way up to the first (high) crest.


The (vertigo-inducing) view from midway up Dune 40

Sarah went on past the second crest. And Gideon, proud seventeen-year-old champ that he is, made it to the highest point, the fourth crest. After retrieving our footwear (left at the dune’s base, communing with the shoes and sandals and flipflops of a range of nationalities),

DSC01053reassembling at our SUV, driving further into the dunescape, taking a four-wheel drive sand-ferry for four kilometers, and trekking afoot twenty minutes deeper up into the dunes, we came upon the nearly sacralized desert landscape, foremost among desert moments in the world, of Deadvlei — to wander among, behold, and contemplate, and, in Sarah’s and my case, talk about the dune-flanked and framed magnificent salt pan


and poetically dead trees,

DSC03349_DxOand anything, which was plenty, that the embodied mind of being there conjured up for the hour or so that we basked in this and our singularity, and in our commonality of sharing this place and our lives.

Gideon, as he has been doing ever more in his meditative orientation and personal journey, took and followed his own path, experiencing Deadvlei on his own, much of which by lying down on his back and, eyes closed, feeling the sun and the place unforgettably on and around him.


We found out about Sossusvlei’s extraordinary landscapes from “Wildest Africa” , a reasonably decent TV documentary series. The photography sold us all, especially Gideon, and for months we walked around the house discussing whether or not to visit what we came to call the DOOOOOoooNES of the NAMIB, in always-risible attempts to imitate Colin Salmon’s deep baritone voice, which his talent agency accurately describes as EPIC and COMMANDING.

Epic and commanding. Check.

Sossusvlei and Deadvlei’s landscapes you will never, ever forget. When we got there, I realized that I’d assumed, without knowing I’d assumed it, that the cinematography in the Namib Desert segment had been doctored, colorized, because no place could actually look that way.

But it does. When we arrived, I struggled with vocabulary, seeking to excavate the names of the oil paint tubes I used to order routinely from Pearl Paint: Yellow ochre. Red ochre. Dark yellow ochre. Burnt Umber.


That red-orange sand! On your toes it felt like velvet or silk — not in the slightest like the granular irritant you eagerly wash off your feet after a day at the beach. So sensuous. I could have washed my face in it. (Gideon did.)

The emptiness; the burnt umbers and ochres and greens and browns; the scorching heat, the dessication beyond what you thought imaginable on earth; all these contribute to the feeling that you can only arrive here once; and having come, you can never leave, or rather, more accurately, this place will never leave you. The stark artistry of the forms makes of every moment, a painting,


though one of the surprising things was that those incised lines, up close, were not always so precisely linear at all,



especially after humans had got there. But still, the sand’s shifting patterns were mesmerizing. That the winds and sands could be counted upon to eventually restore order, to make patterns out of the chaos of human intervention, was deeply comforting.


Indeed, patterns were everywhere.


Deadvlei’s salt pan surface

And in Deadvlei, the figure-ground relationships!


One could teach a whole seminar on vertical reach and horizon lines, or on fields of color and lines of figures, using only material from a single afternoon spent in this place.


Then again, you could just go, experience it, and be enriched.

— Sarah


Namibia! Why the exclamation point?

It has an end-of-the-earth quality to it.


In general, and plenty of times on this trip, we make lists of “most x” or “best y” or rate things 0-10, such as how much each of us likes a city, a building, a movie, with each person settling on her or his rating before we successively reveal it, and then proceed to explain, compare, and discuss. The contenders for most-end-of-the-earth quality places we’ve been turned out to be Iceland outside Reykjavik and not-even-so-northern Finland. Namibia easily joins their ranks: It’s out of the way, at the southwestern edge of Africa. It hasn’t attracted too many people, being the second emptiest (population density) country in the world. And it has the feel, with a vast (drive for hours without seeing any habitation or another soul, except in another occasional SUV), nearly barren desert landscape, offering otherworldy features, most notable among them being the dunescape of the Namib desert.

We did not for a moment think that Namibia might be a fine place to transplant ourselves, self-styled cosmopolitans that we are, and the country suffers many social and economic problems (Gini Coefficient rivaling South Africa), but when it came to rate our time there, it received two 9s and one 10 (from tough raters)! Exclamation point again. Part of why our sense of Namibia did not get dragged down (South African style) certainly was because we may have lucked out and simply not encountered the country’s worst features. But we did spend time in and around Windhoek, the capital and largest city, and in and around Walvis Bay/Swakopmund, the country’s second largest metro area, and, on the lookout as we were, we saw nothing like the horrifying social, spatial, built environmental, and economic soft-apartheid which is the calling card of South Africa — even though Namibia was for decades under the thumb of and even occupied by apartheidist South Africa, with all the racist horrors that that meant, and even though Whites own the bulk of the wealth of the country. We didn’t go to the more fertile northeast, where the poverty of subsistence farming should be more apparent but we nonetheless saw plenty of the country.

What we saw charmed us. Windhoek is a small capitol city inland, both sleepy and bustling, that seems open and orderly.


Government building, Windhoek, Namibia

There, as elsewhere, Blacks are not merely workers or underlings to white bosses, or serving exclusively white clienteles, but are also bosses and supervisors and customers all in the same, even upscale, establishments. The sidewalks and streets are clean and well maintained, the people, with welcoming faces, smartly dressed. We were particularly attentive to the housing on the outskirts, where we presumed less well-off Blacks live, which though small in size, is manifestly of a better character and quality than the many slums and townships we saw in South Africa. It’s hard not to get race-on-the-brain when in South Africa and its spheres of influence. Enough for now.

Swakopmund is a small beach city of several distinctions.


Swakopmund, view with desert in the background

Cooler and beachier, it appears to be the second-home, getaway for the Windhoek well-to-do. It is a tourist destination in Namibia, billing itself with help from guidebooks, as a world-class extreme sport mecca (skydiving, dune-buggy riding, etc.). It is a quaint city of German colonial architecture, in good condition, which lends it the best kind of historic-but-still-up-to-date atmosphere. And it is the home of one of the restaurants with the best gluten-free offerings we have encountered.


Yes, Namibia was until its defeat in World War I, Germany’s colony of South West Africa. There is much to say about that, but I will mention only that the Germans carried out an eliminationist onslaught against the Herero and Nama peoples, exterminating them in a most brazen way, including by publicly and seemingly proudly announcing that they would do so. Swakopmund reminded me of all this (not that I needed a reminder), including in two unexpected ways.

DSC03522_DxO There is a blood-spattered monument in the center of town commemorating the German soldiers that died during the exterminationist slaughter, listing the battles of their heroism. And, reminiscent of the many German firms that were “founded” in the late thirties when their owners bought Jewish-owned firms for a song, many of the Swakopmundian German colonial-era buildings, especially the once-institutional ones, proudly announce the year of their construction, with 1906 and 1907 being prominent numerals. When the Germans finally solved their “Herero Problem” mainly in 1904-05 by slaughtering them, Germans could finally feel comfortable to invest and develop their colonial jewel. Sarah, I gather will be writing more about Swakopmund, which, by the way, was dominated tourist-wise by Germans during our visit. There’s no reason that Germans shouldn’t visit, and Germans — with vacation-time, resources, and curiosity in abundance — are champion travelers in general, so their visibility in Namibia, a former German colony, should not be remarkable. (On the other hand, it was a century ago.) Yet their overwhelming presence made me, attuned to these matters as I am, wonder: How much do they know? And (with this question, I don’t mean to imply approval of any kind), what do they think?

Then there are the various stunning landscapes, including the Namib dunes.


— Danny

Photo essay: Mountains and a Caldera

The other day, I alluded to the extraordinary, and extraordinarily different mountain ranges we’ve had the pleasure to behold and good fortune to climb. Some visuals:


Lofoten Islands, Norway


Sentinel and Amphitheater, Drakensburg National Park, South Africa


Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia


Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia


Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco


Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania (sunrise on a cloudy day)


Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania (late afternoon on a mostly clear day)

— Sarah