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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

–Danny

Swakopmund

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.

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Notice Atlas on the corner, holding up the world

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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.

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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.

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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.

–Sarah

Wonderful People, Broken Parts

We spent close to two weeks in Cape Town, said to us ahead of time by two reliable friends, to be a European rather than an African city.

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My regard for them notwithstanding, I had my doubts that such a baldfaced statement might withstand the test of our exacting social scientific eyes. Boy, or — not to commit a micro-aggression — girl, was I wrong.

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The Cape Town of our visit was overwhelmingly first-world and WHITE, and that’s because Cape Town might be fairly described as a post-apartheid city. That’s not to say that Blacks and Coloreds – these are standard apartheid legacy ways of categorizing people among all South Africans – aren’t in evidence. They are – often as waiters or clerks serving almost exclusively Whites. The continuing residential and spatial and wealth segregation of whites and non-whites, a de facto without being de jure apartheid, is manifest in a thousand different ways, which makes it impossible for a person not to be conscious (if at times only in the background of the mind) all the time. Whatever else it is, Cape Town can be conceived of as a soft-apartheid city. Massive townships, some with hundreds of thousands of residents and scant infrastructure and services, ranging from awful to dehumanizing, emanate far outwards from the city’s central, White core, or are sequestered off from the posh, gated and barbed wired, White suburbs.

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The Cape Town townships – and therefore statistically Cape Town – constitute the most dangerous city in Africa. Gangsterism is a frequently heard term to characterize the quality and quantity of danger and violence of many of the area’s townships. Public transportation is appalling, creating effective commuting times of hours for many township residents to travel to their jobs (those who have them) in the central city. Cape Town, for all its fine features mainly for Whites, is sickening.

I can see how a (White) person with means, if willing to overlook or become inured to the larger degrading context and the human suffering it produces, could live well in Cape Town. Table Mountain (overrated as a natural and urban wonder, but nonetheless fine enough), great weather, inviting urban pockets, excellent restaurant, and perhaps enough cultural vibrancy, dirt-cheap cost of living (including wages for domestics), stunning beaches nearby and garden and wine country within an hour or two – it all adds up to a cushy and commodious existence. But the spiritual corrosiveness is unavoidable, whether one hardens one’s heart (QED: corroded) or not (it would eat away at you).

To be sure, I do not have the answers to the many questions of what to do and how to bring it about in a country of such massive economic (see Gini Coefficient), social (crime and violence rampant), health (HIV off the charts) spatial (de facto apartheid, built environmental disaster for most Blacks), racial (a country structured by race, racism, and racialism), and political pathologies (the government is massively and hopelessly corrupt). And it is easy for us to spend our three plus weeks in South Africa developing all our just criticisms while we enjoy the natural wonders, marvel with and at some of the wonderful people we meet, and viscerally experience the ordinary horrors that are the commonplaces of this country, and then to leave on our merry way, bequeathing little more than a few withering blog entries in our trail. So, we – Sarah, Gideon, and I – talk, and talk, and talk, and who knows what it will yield.

Among the wonderful people we have met, we spent several days in Port Elizabeth with Kevin Kimwelle, a personally winning and professionally admirable architect and social activist, with whom we will surely keep in touch (and about whom we, probably Sarah, will write more).

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Mark Coetzee (see https://www.conceptualfinearts.com/cfa/2017/06/30/mark-coetzee-interview/), the director of the just-to-be-opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, hugely impressive and thoughtful, spent a couple of hours with us, touring the museum and explaining to us the building process and choices – of mission, art, staff, and institution – in a society characterized and riven by all the features (and more, such as violent homophobia) I have mentioned.

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We learned a great deal from Mark in a short time, and even received a fairly spirited critique of our, in his view, blinkered critique of South Africa – though it was unpersuasive as the defense mainly took the form of pointing to the inequalities and horrors of other countries (real or exaggerated). Lest I leave the wrong impression, Mark told us that he had been a long-time anti-apartheid activist who had to flee the country in the 1980s, that he decries the ongoing soft-apartheidism of South Africa, and that he works to privilege and give voice to African artists (mostly non-White), and to create as progressive an institution as possible. It may be more complicated than Mark’s self-representations (how would we know?), as he, a self-proclaimed Marxist, comfortably and successfully works at the highest and wealthiest echelons of the notoriously non-Marxist art world, which suggests that he may be caught in what the Marxists call a contradictory position, one of less than full self- or self-representational enlightenment. In any case, for us, Mark, memorable as he is, will just be a memory.

In the Drakensberg, we met, climbed with, and broke bread with a range of people, mainly Europeans, who gave further support to the well-established notion that people who appreciate nature enough to want to hike along or up it are generally nice people, or at least they bring their better selves on these adventures. Of particular note, aside from the always helpful and earnest South African staff of the lodge, were two Germans who were more or less permanently in Southern Africa to bring the word of their God to others. They were full of the well-meaning passion which I have encountered in Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they were. Miriam and Mike have devoted themselves to living by their humanistic (if godly inspired) principles, going door to door giving witness and spreading their enlightenment. Even though their understanding of godly issues is decidedly not mine, I like such non-self-righteous-righteousness, and admire those who espouse and practice such an orientation’s maxims. Salt of the earth was coined to describe such people. Their optimism and positive spirits are infectious. We shared a couple of lovely meals and a bunch of laughs with Miriam and Mike. Who knows if we will ever be in touch with them again. If we do, I will be happy.

There were, of course, all the many South Africans of whatever skin color (race) and station we encountered. All-in-all, nearly without exception (except for a few race-coding Whites), people were lovely and kind, with smiles all around (except from the flow of beggars). We talked to as many people as we could, mainly Blacks and Coloreds, with the passing questions and conversations that can come with such chance and fleeting encounters. Our impressions of those we encountered is that the people were well-educated and thoughtful, with much human capital and ambition, and therefore ready to take off if economic and professional opportunity were to come their way. From our end, all we had to do (we usually offered more) is mention New York, which has cache with everyone.

The densest and most significant contact we had with South Africans was orchestrated by Gideon, who in his by now typical manner, went about on his own, and met a group of Black (perhaps some designated as Colored) young men and women, who integrated him into their squad (he immediately was let into their group chat) and with whom he ran day after day and became friends, real genuine friends. They met over a rap song in McDonalds (Gideon was rapping along, the others, sitting nearby, laughed, and they all started talking), and the rest is history. They – Larnelle, Clyde, Llewyn, Judah, Henry, and Octavia – poor enough that on the last day we were there, they didn’t have enough money to come into Cape Town. Sarah and I suggested that Gideon offer to pay for their transportation and food, which he did. They accepted eagerly, saying in the seemingly ubiquitous youth vernacular we there, and had a wonderful day together. Though for Gideon, the time with the squad was mainly sweet — as he really liked them, they had great and memorable times together, and his friends showed him their Cape Town and their humanity – it was also bitter.

As Gideon was acutely aware, compared to them, he is a billionaire. While after a day with the squad, he returns to the perfectly nice apartment we rented, they have to somehow get back (or walk the streets at night—no joke) to their townships about which Octavia, upon saying goodbye to Gideon one day, said, now we go back to hell. And of course, all the fellow-feeling notwithstanding, Gideon and we resume our privileged trip-around-the-world and then our privileged life in New York, while they, his good friends, just because they were born with darker skin in this apartheid structured country, will try to overcome (with what success? and what will failure mean?) the seemingly multiple insurmountable hurdles which may auger a life of privation and suffering.

When it was time the last evening for Gideon to take his final leave, Larnelle and Clyde accompanied Gideon to our apartment building. I went down to the street to let Gideon in, and got to greet them. Big smiles, sweet faces, vigorous handshakes, words of thanks to me for letting them meet and spend time with such a great kid as Gideon. With equal enthusiasm and gratitude, I thanked and complimented them in turn for their kindness and generosity towards him, before the farewell hugs warmed and broke my heart, and more so Gideon’s. Gideon fears he may never see them again, though social media (Gideon has friends all over the word) will keep them in touch.

The whole situation, and especially the contexts of the lives of Gideon’s friends, breaks my heart. It breaks Sarah’s. Most of all it breaks Gideon’s.

 

— Danny

South Africa, the Ugly

One day in particular, on the drive from Drakensburg to Port Elizabeth, crystallized an early impression of South Africa that subsequent experiences have done little to shake. Clarens is a touristy town encircled by spreading luxury resorts on private game parks, with horseback riding and fine wines on offer. Hunting too, maybe. It’s located in South Africa’s Free State, which is where Dutch Afrikaaner settlers retreated after the British had muscled their way in, grabbing the reins of colonial power. The story of how Afrikaaners fled to the mostly (and still mostly) empty, arable Free State, settling there with their retinues of slaves, reminded me a bit of those contemporary, right-wing anarchists in America’s Pacific Northwest, inhabiting huts in the rural forest regions.

Lonely Planet, our ever-inadequate, spunk-filled guide, described Clarens as a funky, hip town. Art galleries, restaurants, boutiques; it was on our way south anyway, so we thought, why not? And initially, it sort of delivered.

 

Cappuccino plus above-average pastries nestled into a tastefully funky shopping complex, which also housed a “farm-fresh” restaurant with outdoor seating, a lifestyle boutique selling hand-mixed face creams and funky bamboo sunglasses, a gourmet cheese shop, counters arrayed with little custard cups offering with tastings. Nearby, historic, single (or at most double) story brick and stone buildings slung around a large central open area—in New England, this would be The Green. Surrounding it all were the dramatic, burnt umber and red ochre mountainscapes of the Golden Gate National Park.

Clarens occupied a pleasant enough hour or two. The “antique” shops and “art” galleries were, predictably, a joke. Nearly every face we saw was white, including the settlers gazing out from the historic photographs hanging in the foyer of the simple, ochre-brick 19th-century Protestant church. The locals spoke Afrikaans among themselves. In the boutique, two women effortlessly switched between it to English, graciously explaining local customs and answering questions regarding the origins of their goods.

Time to go. Piling back in the car, I nodded at the black construction workers repairing the sidewalk outside our café.

We were barely out of town when we spotted the slum. This one, worse than many we’d seen, but better than the disgraceful shantytowns in Johannesburg. The typical – horrifyingly typical — one-dark-room, dirt-floored tin shacks. Unpaved dirt pathways. (Cars are mainly unaffordable for underprivileged South Africans. Hitchhiking is common.) Electric lines, yes, though scant evidence of running water, and plenty outhouses indicating its scarcity.

Cheek by jowl. Clarens proper, which reminded me (without really resembling) my summer hometown in Woodstock, Vermont, and this destitute, garbage-strewn slum.

That’s where those construction workers, to whom I’d politely nodded, probably lived.

The racism, the grotesque inequality. Inescapable.

Graciousness, Public Space, Oslo

Gracious wins my vote as the word that best describes Oslo. The capital city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, sidewalks are wide, cobblestoned paths and alleyways well-maintained, DSC01053_DxO

and its abundant public spaces carefully, thoughtfully designed.

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Parks are everywhere, although for overall greenness, several studies, including this– (https://www.siemens.com/entry/cc/features/greencityindex_international/all/en/pdf/report_en.pdf) — indicate that Copenhagen and Stockholm surpass Oslo, though not by much.

DSC01045_DxOIn many open areas and public spaces, art installations are carefully installed, including this one, which combines a phone charging area and seating. The public art varies widely in quality, at least it’s there.

Anker Brygge, the newly developed waterfront area, looks out across water onto Snøhetta’s Opera House and Ballet Theater, which is as good as its press indicates.

DSC01077_DxO_DxONot a great building, but an excellent one. (Few projects of any sort, artistic, architectural, or literary, rise to the level of great.) All over Anker Brygge, new, new new:

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Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum bridges the end of a long boardwalk which, at its opposite end, is edged by a few older warehouse and storage buildings, meticulously renovated, along with many newer mid-rise commercial and residential buildings.

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This time it was Danny, not I, who fantasized about spending some time every year in a place we’ve traveled to see. More commonly I am the one who pokes around the nicer places we encounter– Marbella, Spain; The Sea Ranch in northern California; the Lakes District in England — all have received their due consideration, all for naught. Here the reverie evaporated rapidly: real estate agencies advertise both new and older residential properties at staggering prices: $2.3 million for a 500-square-foot studio apartment.

In the older part of the city, my favorite place became the Oslo Cathedral and environs.

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The Cathedral is the most spacious 17th-century central plan church I’ve seen, and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with murals painted in the 1950’s narrating the life of Jesus – each episode carefully drawn in a Norwegian landscape.

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To one side of the cathedral sits the Basarhallene, an arcaded brick neo-Romanesque courtyard built in the mid-19th century to house butcher shops. Even it is graciously arranged and beautifully detailed.

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In our walking, walking, walking, we also ran into the old copper-banded, round-cornered modern commercial building (ca. 1960) that I recalled seeing when I exited the Oslo train station in 1975, forty-two years ago. Hadn’t thought of it once since that day, and my recollection of it was pristine, clear, as if it was only days when I’d walked by it last. Unbelievable how place-based our long-term autobiographical memory really is: Just a glimpse snapped it in place.

Decided not to shoot.

Then in our perambulations around the city, we skirted the park in which I found a bench and, exhausted from a crowded, overnight train ride here, slept for several hours in the early morning sun. Later, Danny showed Gideon and me the exact spot where he lay down, at age 20, on the grass under a tree and also slept (pictured above). Gracious, peaceful. That is the experience of Oslo.

Accompanying me throughout Norway was Karl Ove Knausgård. I had read the first volume of My Struggle several years ago, and was impressed by Knausgård’s intelligence while at the same time I recoiled from his nihilism (“what was man on this earth other than an insect among other insects”), and endless self-examination. A couple of days before we boarded the plane bound for Norway, I decided it was time to give Volume Two a try. (In total, there are six, each between four and six hundred pages.) Better than One, Two narrates an account of his leaving his second wife in Norway and moving, somewhat impulsively, to “that shitty little country”, Sweden. There, he reconnects with Linda, a poet and dramatist five years his junior and falls in love with her tender, wounded soul; they become a couple, and Knausgård subsequently settles, uneasily, into a husband’s and father’s life.

As ever, Knausgård remains tortured.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something that I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it.

Yet each each successive account of his turbulent ruminations is recounted in such a soulful, authentic way that reading the book necessitates a depth of emotional involvement that is rare, even in the best literature.  And his descriptions of life’s joyful moments absolutely soar. Some have called Knausgård a contemporary Proust, with all the insight and none of the lace: few metaphors; blunt, declarative sentences; exacting descriptions of life’s daily activities. An account of washing the dishes after supper or a trip to the supermarket can run five or ten pages; somehow, it just doesn’t become flat or dull. Curiosity compelled me to read on – did this account of Linda’s sour mood and petulant conduct (both of which seems to Knausgård’s specialize in) — portend an incipient crisis, or was it just another thing that happened in the course of that one day? As James Wood wrote in his review of the book’s first two (400-600-page) volumes, even when I was bored I was interested.

And his fond accounts of Norwegian cities, landscape and culture rang true, over and over again.

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This is the Radhus, (City Hall) seen from the terrace of Piano’s Museum.

— Sarah, 30 July 2017, posted in Amsterdam, written on our last day in Oslo

The More Subtle Great Adventure

We are sitting in our amazingly overstuffed though comfortable Airbnb rental at 7:19 in the late afternoon of an overcast Oslo day, listening to what Gideon would call a criminally underrated album, Neil Young’s Sleep With Angels. Sarah, two feet to my right in the sitting area’s easy chair, edits photos, a nearly daily activity, about which she has had more to say and will say yet more than I could ever offer, so I’ll move on to Gideon, who listens to the music, unlike Sarah and me, with devoted concentration as he lays on the couch six feet across from Sarah. We are spending a quiet evening (depending on how you conceive of it all) working or recreating in our respective momentary ways, in tight proximity to one another, with our activities punctuated by questions, verbal offerings, banter, repartee, and a fair amount of laughter. I just laughed heartily as I thought about what I might write next. Gideon turned my way, raised his head and said what? I replied I’ll let you know after I write it. Gideon chuckled, a broad smile lighting up his face, with the words that sounds ominous gracing his lips right before they graced Sarah’s and my ears.

I was recalling the jocular riffs which Gideon and I exchanged on and off again during the day, a two-heads-is-better-than-one activity which was set in motion when we began discussing how strange our host’s (to us) unfamiliar Norwegian name sounded to our ears, and what a burden such a name would be to an American child, should his parents in ignorance or cultural defiance confer it upon him. Among the many (we think, Sarah less so) witty and silly things we considered and said was coming up with a roster of the worst (invented) names. Some were euphonious violations, others onomatopoetical virtuosos, some were unprintable – and so to honor the latter, I will refrain from mentioning any. Sarah is probably right about the value of our product, or half right, which in such matters is right enough.

DSC01090_DxOWe had a fine day and previous evening in Oslo, mostly walking and taking in its distinctive urbanity and its fabric, mainly known as buildings.

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At 7:30 this morning, Sarah and I (Gideon chose to sleep in) also drove to the outlying part of Oslo called Mortensrud to see an intelligent, intriguing, and, without being beautiful or uplifting, inspiring contemporary church by Jensen & Skodvin. DSC01001_DxOIn the early afternoon, just as it was beginning to rain, we visited and marveled at Snohetta’s renowned Opera House.

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All this notwithstanding and all the captivating photos Sarah offers you notwithstanding, and all the descriptions and impressions and analyses we also record here for you notwithstanding, for us so much of this already great adventure we spend together in the interstitial moments which are really hours, we do so in a more subtle great adventure sitting near one another, picking up our heads, and sharing a serious theme which one of us raises, or finding humor (profound or silly) in some aspect, large or small, of the human condition, a condition about which our senses have become notably heightened since embarking on this journey, and which I joyfully expect will remain so for the coming year.

–Danny, 28 July 2017

 

 

On Photography (again)

Since I am both the designated and self-designated photographer of this lengthy adventure, I have, over the past few months, devoted a good deal of energy learning about the possibilities of, and the skills necessary for photographing in a now-dominated-by-digital world. My last camera, a sturdy single-lens reflex Canon E05, was stolen last year. Humiliated by my inadvertent agency in its disappearance (I’d carefully packed it in my handy durable neon orange suitcase; the airline baggage carriers in Bilbao “lost” the bag), I’d not yet purchased a replacement.

We started with a pilgrimage to B&H Photo on 34th and 9th. Danny had never been, and found amusement in its cornucopia of imaging gadgets, from film projectors to televisions to drones on which to load a camera so you can shoot aerial images with a remote; most stations are tended to by kindly, immensely knowledgeable Orthodox Jews. We decided upon the head-spinningly smart new mirrorless Sony (mirrorless means less weight, a good thing when on the road), which captures “full-frame” images as data-dense as anyone, professional or amateur, could possibly need. In one image, tiniest details in dark dark shadows appear alongside bright white sunny skies – a big boon when shooting architecture, and life. The improbably-named Christopher, our lens salesperson, also introduced me to an image processing program (not Photoshop) which corrects for perspectival distortion, along with offering a raft of other possible, more radical edits – turn that red room green! Transform daylight into night! – in which I have no interest, and for which I have no need.

Along with learning, thinking. Thinking, thinking, wondering what a photograph is for. About the divergence of its meanings for its viewers and its maker. About its distortions, lies, and omissions (which I’ve written about, most recently in Welcome to Your World). And thinking also through that long-settled debate, namely, can a photograph rise to the level of fine art? Or should we ghettoize even artsy photographs (Gernd and Hilla Becher, for example) as little more than prettied-up documentation? Most would consider these questions anachronistic, but they remain salient for me for two reasons: because of how I choose my subjects, and because my beloved Danny believes that photographs, even staged ones such as those by Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, rarely rise to the level of art.

Photography has been woven into my life since high school, even more so since college, because the subjects of my writing demand as much. Can’t mean without them. Yet you must always write as though the photograph wouldn’t exist, because a writer exacts little to no control over what images will or won’t get published. (Begging helps a little. Money helps a little more.)

Like anyone carrying a camera, I leave countless moments and images behind. In my case, many of these foregone possibilities are ones that any good travel photographer would snap, often for documentary purposes. Here’s what the Brygge in Bergen looks like. The Queen Mary II, docked beside it. Danny here! Gideon there!

No. Take the seagull that figured in my first Lofoten Islands entry: I considered shooting it, but then demurred, thinking that photographs so distort scale that my picture would likely fail to illustrate my observation about the immense size of Nordic gulls in comparison with East Coast ones.

Usually I am trying to get people out of my pictures. In Norway even more so. Why? These mountains and fjords and waterfalls loom over us, and over time; they’ve remained steadfast through centuries. People? They come, then they go.

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Life lived behind a viewfinder becomes a life slowed down. I’m often imagining frames around moments, constantly on the hunt for the right composition. (That’s the only way that the otherwise-too-violent nomenclature of “shooting” a picture makes sense.) What, then, constitutes my right composition? For now: the horizon line must must must be perpendicular to the vertical edge of the frame. Repetitive patterns of one type (wood slats) abutting patterns of another type (rock slabs) are ever-alluring. Colors: white orchids and purple curtains in tiny gray windows;

 

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black, rust, and thin green lichen on rocks;

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deeply saturated ochre, barn-red, and pink paint on buildings;

DSC00536_DxOclouds and sky at different times of day. In landscapes, I’ve been gravitating toward imbalanced compositions – one side in deep shadow, the other suffused with rosy hues. DSC00464_DxO-1 - Copy - Copy

Photographing buildings, my predilection for symmetry surprises me, but it’s not always possible.

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And always, I wait for the late afternoons, with their strong, warm light, full of contrasts and ethereal promise.

In taking a photograph, I often wonder, am I creating a memory or preserving it? Both, I suppose. And if the former, then what kind of memory? Maybe even false memories. I’m entertaining the possibility of basking in the ignorance of presuming that Joẑef Plečnik built a nice little cinema in Bergen, rather than doing the right thing (research) to actually find out.

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In the spring of 1991 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I stood on the banks of the Brahmaputra River regarding the hand-hewn wooden boats, the late afternoon sun glinting off rippled water, the men in their lungis hauling nets of fish onto the docks, and I thought: this is beautiful, and real. I reached for the camera hanging around my neck, looked into the viewfinder, and realized that the picture I was about to shoot couldn’t possibly capture the experience of standing there. For one reason if not for many: stench. Accompanying the visual enticements was the stench of dead fish, the stench feces — human, animal, whatever; the stench of rotting organic manner washed up on the riverbanks. What this picture will show, I mused, is visual beauty; what it will hide is noxious acridity.

Shot anyway. It’s a picture I treasure.

— Sarah, 25 July 2017

Svolvaer, Lofoten, II

The seagulls here are enormous. One across from me stares with expectant eyes, as if this open-faced shrimp sandwich before me were meant for him and him alone– if only I understood.

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Lofoten is a chain of islands comprised of seven or eight “main” ones (depends upon the website) surrounded by thousands of others erupting from the Norwegian Sea, most of them unoccupied but all carefully staked out, and mapped: some the size of a neighborhood playground, others long sinewy strings of beachside or rocky settlements with small, tidy homes, their vertical siding painted in deeply saturated umber or a dark, grayish red. Abutting many of these homes are grass-covered huts– for drying the cod? Storing the car?

Svolvaer view - Copy - CopyEvidence of human settlement stretches back 11,000 years. Since 800 CE men (that’s right, men; I know because of a photograph of Sunday worship in Lofoten Cathedral, ca. 1895) have migrated here in the winter and early spring, following the cod, who come to the area to spawn. One of the early Norse sagas tells of one Viking who sailed to England after a fishing expedition, and traded reams of dried fish for other essential goods. Whole, split dried fish hangs everywhere, even in the local equivalent of a 7/11.

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DSC00447_DxODawn follows sunset within the space of half an hour: one moment, daylight is a golden red; the next, a cool morning blue. Astonishing. As if the world is birthing itself anew before your eyes; the diurnal cycle of hours unending, a joyful noise unto the interstices of time. And yet my mind rushes to imagine its biannual opposite: here, Nordspeople living in unremitting darkness for many winter months.

DSC00460_DxOLast night, as we drove back to our Svolvaer flat at 1:30 am following a midnight hike in Henningsvaer in failed chase of a full view of the storied midnight sun (failed because, at the critical moment, we lacked the necessary northern sightlines), I noted that home after home in this town left a light illuminated indoors. They couldn’t get enough of it, even during the summer, I thought, perhaps a bit morbidly.

In the Lofoten Islands, where precipitous crags of mountainsides drop into green, lichen-covered gray and white sandy strips of habitable earth, all life here bows before the drama of landscape. Nature accompanies one’s every movement and moment. DSC00337_DxOLooking out a window: rays of sun shine between the mountaintop ridge and the fluffy cumulus. Walking the street from home to café beneath a looming cliff. Crisp air everywhere: it’s mid-July, and hovering around 50 degrees.

Good night.

— Sarah, 18 July 2017

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