South Africa’s Beauty

A few months ago I was lunching with Robin Middleton, one of my doctoral advisors, who was born and trained in South Africa — Cape Town, I think– before immigrating first to the UK, then, eventually, to New York City. Discussing the around-the-world trip, I ventured the possibility of South Africa as a destination, as dear friends of ours treasure the year that they lived with their then-small, now-grown children in Grahamstown,


home of august institutions of higher learning and host of the annual, renowned Grahamstown Arts Festival, which attracts performing artists and musicians from all over the continent.

South Africa? Robin remarked. It’s quite beautiful. But there’s nothing for you there.

He meant buildings. I fell in love with architecture at around age 17. Since then, I’ve traveled to dozens of countries; not a single year has passed without my boarding at least one plane to some far-flung (though this trip has made abundantly clear that that’s a relative term, always) location. As Danny, Gideon, and I planned our round the world adventures, I realized that I undertook practically every one of those prior trips with the explicit purpose of seeking out buildings by specific architects, or analyzing urban configurations, or studying architecture, urban, and landscape history. Singapore: Safdie, WOHA, the impressively progressive city planning. India: Kahn’s Ahmedabad, Le Corbusier’s city of Chandigarh, Old Delhi and New Delhi, Moghul monuments, Rajput forts. Even Iceland, where I went to seek out the work of Granta, an impressive Reijkavik-based firm. Colonial, missionary outposts and mining towns in northern Mexico.

In this RTW trip, cities and buildings share equal billing with animals (safari), birds (Lake Manyara, Birds of Eden in South Africa),



savannahs (Serengeti in Tanzania), deserts (Sossussvlei in Namibia), bodies of water (black-green fjords in Norway, the Indian Ocean), beaches (Port Elizabeth and the Garden Route).


And with a cosmopolis of mountains: mountains in schist and gray granite, mountains in red sandstone, mountains of sand, aka dunes. Mountains covered in scrub brush and green.

This wider-angled approach to traveling, analogous to swapping out my well-worn 55-200 mm. zoom for the 16-35 mm one I’m currently using, has proved a liberation of sorts, about which I was needlessly anticipatorily anxious.

South Africa. Family, educational, and social obligations, along with many long days of driving from place to place, have simultaneously occupied our minds and kept us away from our computers. So to begin, I shall summarize our itinerary. We landed in Johannesburg and loaded everything directly into our sturdy Rav 4 Toyota SUV rental for the long drive south east, through Gautung and parts of Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape to the northern tip of the Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg, where we planned to hike the hair-raising (couldn’t be nail-biting, because you need both hands to ascend) Sentinel, which appears on many lists as one of the greatest hikes on the planet. After a few days in the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, we loaded everything into the car, driving south to the city of Port Elizabeth via the Golden Gate National Park, the desiccated and lovely landscape of the Free State, and through the Eastern Cape.

It’s winter here. A first thing we discovered about South Africa is that central heating does not exist. The Drakensburg was particularly uncomfortable: now I know why so many Africans walk around with ski-hats on their heads. It’s cold! The area where the Wietsihoek lodge is located rises around 6,000 feet above sea level. One day 120-km-per-hour winds forced one group of hikers that we met (after they survived) to crawl, literally crawl, across a mountain ridge to avoid being blown away.

Danny has goaded me into writing more about the hike up the Drakensburg escarpment to the Sentinel and the bowl-like Amphitheater, which at its highest point rises about 10,000 feet above sea level. And I’m happy to comply.


At first, the hike takes you up a path nicely outfitted with pavers; shoes get a good grip as you survey the expanse of Phuthaditjhaba’s surrounding valley. But within 45 minutes you find yourself leaning into sheer, sloping rock planes, searching for toe-holds, and the real tenor of the expedition reveals itself. One unlucky slip could be fatal, tumbling your helpless body hundreds of feet into that ravishing ravine.


Danny prudently retreated, leaving me on my own to ascend to the Amphitheater, which included scaling two storied iron ladders, affixed every ten feet or so to 30-50 foot-high cliffs introduced by a narrow landing, really nothing more than a pause in the cliff.

IMG_6544[15644](Every guidebook will advise you to be prepared for these, and my experience on them was, I discovered, shared by all my fellow hikers. We all thought we were prepared. No one was prepared.)

The ladder ascent stopped time, opening up one of those – I kid you not – “you can do this, you can do this” moments. I swayed back and forth on that clanking ladder, praying that my hands would stop sweating, or at least stop sweating quite so much. And then! The summit. IMG_6539[15643]

Of which I have only this photo, having wisely surrendered the camera to Danny hours earlier. Gideon had reached the legendary amphitheater long before, accompanied by a young Dutch couple.

Together we descended with our new German friends, Jürgen and Kersten, chatting about traveling, and about life with and without children, while their 17-year-old daughter Celina chatted happily with Gideon about American rap music and life aspirations.


By the end of the day, legs were sore, stories were told and recounted, and all of us felt as though we’d honored the majesty of this place.

— Sarah


Wrestling with the Stench

Writing about South Africa could consume a whole book. In light of what else South Africa has consumed, that’s no surprise, and that book would hardly constitute a footnote. In a sense, that’s true about whatever we write of everywhere we’ve been or will go, making South Africa no different. But South Africa stands out nonetheless, not in the trivial sense that all countries are singular along any number of dimensions, but because it is fundamentally different – and its marks of heart-wrenching distinction are palpable with nearly every step and in virtually every waking moment.

I do not intend to write the treatise South Africa warrants, merely to note elements, just kernels of them, which arise in the course of where my writing takes me and you. Yet one eloquent fact can help justify my opening, and set the stage for more. Of the 149 countries listed by Gini Coefficient in the CIA Factbook, South Africa has the second highest – meaning second greatest degree of economic inequality – exceeded only by the poor country it entirely surrounds and dominates, Lesotho. The most recent census (2011) revealed that the household income of whites is SIX TIMES that of blacks. (In the US, we rightly decry a white-black income gap where white households on average earn 60% more than black ones. In South Africa the figure is 500%.)


The gaping inequality is literally impossible not to see because it is manifest everywhere. Sumptuous villas sit a stone’s throw away from shacks.


Gleaming shopping centers share roadsides with garbage strewn shantytowns. Just sitting and writing about these human and inhuman contrasts – as it further focuses my attention on them — increases my already considerable disgust that has been our constant companion in this country of uncommon natural beauty.

We sailed through the entry sequence at the Johannesburg airport, got our Toyota Rav 4 for the expected rugged driving in the rugged areas, and headed, only several hours behind our initial well-laid schedule, straight for the Drakensberg Escarpment. It didn’t take but a few blinks of the prepared but still disbelieving eyes for us to be introduced to the physical squalor of the “settlements” and the individual structures which shamefully qualify as homes, to which so many black South Africans, though no longer legally so, are effectively still confined.


Of course, in Tanzania, a much poorer country, with per capita GDP not even one-fourth as high as South Africa, we saw much poverty and “homes” which, in their inadequacy to their name, would break your heart should it not be of the hard-hearted variety, which we have good reason to believe characterizes many of the more materially fortunate hearts here in South Africa. But to see the contrast, to put it starkly in coloristic terms, between black and white in South Africa, and to know that the abject physical, social, and security conditions in which so many blacks live here is systematically structured by race, by once-racist law, politics, and state-violence, and by the ongoing thoroughgoing legacies of this racism, makes the impoverished physical lives of black South Africans so much more disturbing.

The beauty of the Drakensberg is overwhelming.


As much as anything could clear the moral and human mental-stench from our minds, Drakensberg is it. When below the escarpment, and when above, it offers breathtaking views on the order of the Grand Canyon, as different as the formations, stone, and coloration are. I hope Sarah writes about it, for two reasons. Her hand is niftier for using words to convey what we saw, which she also sees better, as she has the better eye. Second, she saw more, because she climbed to the glorious top, which I did not because my vertigo finally got the better of me when we came upon a six-inch ledge above a straight drop down. I turned back, while Sarah went on alone, as spry Gideon much earlier had steamed ahead with a couple from the Netherlands. As we couldn’t count on cell-service to communicate with Gideon, Sarah had to venture on solo because we couldn’t leave Gideon, uninformed, on the mountain alone. When I started to descend from the high-point of my vertigo, we, a solid-threesome starting out, were, as far as Sarah and I knew, three isolated individuals — not ideal on a climb which is dangerous, even if it is not the north face of the Eiger.


Sarah and Gideon finally met up on top, shared memorable views and times, and touched-down safely and fulfilled about four hours after Sarah and I had parted. Sitting and writing in our lodge’s restaurant/common area, I was relieved when Gideon texted me that they were driving back from the base of the climb, as his words washed away my many worries about their safety. No surprise, I was even more overjoyed than usual to see them, and to hear their tales of climbing courage and visual wonders.



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.


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;



black, rust, and thin green lichen on rocks;


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.


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.


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

The Ambivalence of Writing, and of Chasing the Midnight Sun

Traveling inspires, at least in me, writing. I’ve been putting fingers to the keyboard (a contemporary substitute for the almost archaic, if graceful, pen-to-paper) regularly. Making mnemonic notes for extensive expansion to come, composing paragraphs of observations and of the somewhat more exalted things called reflections and thoughts. Yet little of it has seen the light of the blog, as I have dual progeny in the ongoing process of being born, which have nonetheless become my instantaneous and at least partly conflicting masters. DSC00408_DxOSarah and I set out on our adventure with the purpose of writing books, one by her and one by me, very different in character, each possible only through this long journey. More on them in a moment. We also set out committed to the writerly experiment of this let-the-spirit-move-us collaborative blog, which includes Gideon, who, I hope, will make his entry here soon and thereafter frequently. For Sarah and for me (about Gideon, who also has other writing projects, I’m not sure), the question of what goes where is live, and, at least for me, has not been resolved clearly. DSC00407Roughly speaking, my schema is to offer you accounts and observations about the world out there which we encounter on our carefully chosen itinerary of barely scratching the world’s surface, even with a year of scratching at our disposal. The inner workings and inter-workings of the three of us – what it is like to travel with two loved ones for a year, and how the many and ongoing encounters with one another and with the offerings and demands of the world we will wend our way through affect and change us as individuals and in our relationships as parents and child, as married people, as individuals positioned differently in the ever-changing arrays of living – these things about us are the stuff and soul of the book. The rub might be obvious: the line, actually lines demarcating what’s out there from what’s in here (the family circle and each of our minds and hearts) is hard to draw, especially as the inside is implicated in the outside, most essentially because both constitute and are filtered through experience, thought, and language. (Taking and posting photos – Sarah’s and Gideon’s domains – are more clear cut.) So, deciding what’s in and out of the blog, because what constitutes the in(side) and the out(side) of the respective worlds we are living and seeking to understand is often indeterminate, is an ongoing and inherently messy and probably shifting process which I am negotiating with that very tough and a bit ambivalent negotiator, myself. As to the other negotiator involved here, I think less beset by this manner of thinking, I’ll leave it to her to engage her blog/book issues herself.

DSC00412_DxOLofoton, above the Arctic Circle in midnight summertime sun Norway, was a spectacular place to begin our journey. The breath-taking and -giving monumental landscapes, which can be imaginatively discerned well enough through the miniaturized photos (which I expect Sarah will happily insert), as a undulating symphony of approachable mountains and hills, and lakes and fjords. We drove for hours through it at nearly every hour of the 24-hour day, including 1 in the morning, 5 in the morning, 9 in the evening, 11 in the evening and the more conventional sightseeing times in-between. Riveted and scanning, still and pointing, quiet and in full conversation (see shadows above), we drove, we walked, we looked, we breathed, we experienced Lofoton. For two days our ordinary rhythms of sleeping and waking, eating and… we cast asunder. We walked (see Gideon, double above), we hiked (straight up a small mountain nearing midnight), we drank coffee outdoors in the just warm enough weather, as we lived according to our own time- and activity-wants. We valiantly twice tried to see the sun at solar midnight descend, bounce, and rise slightly above the horizon, and failed for differently reasons. The attempts felt (in our exaggerating subjectivity) near-heroic, so we, the reasonable agents we are, felt disappointed yet satisfied that we had done our best. And so, we have yet another reason to return to Lofoton, to find and follow the midnight sun.


–Danny, 19 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.


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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East Harlem is home, but for the next year . . .

DSC00265_DxO-2_DxO-2_DxOWe’re traveling. To a lot of places, on six out of seven continents.

The itinerary? First question everyone asks. We’ll let it unfold for you in real time, as it will for us — unless one of my two coauthors decides otherwise. Such is the nature of family coordination, which does indeed happen — not always in perfect harmony — and which characterizes both the essence of this blog and the inevitability of our journey.

This week, we’re adjusting to the reality that that jet plane takes off , with us in it, in six days. Ready or not! What’s occupying our minds — or at least mine — are things quotidian and existential.

20161030_195838The quotidian: we’re frantically trying to organize everything, financial, virtual, physical. Transfer responsibility for bills to a virtual bank. Prepay maintenance fees, due in January. Who’s going to shovel the sidewalk this winter? Water the plants? Will the vacation override from our health insurance come through in time to allow us to secure needed medications?

And: Cleaning out shelf space; tossing expired prescriptions and never-opened mouthwash from bathroom cabinets; jamming brick-like, window-sized vacuum-sealed bags stuffed with decades of clothing under the bed. Our home’s temporary residents need space too! Finishing reading other people’s manuscripts: friends’ novels, screenplays, an estate plan.

The existential: all this planning and arranging — planning the trip, arranging what will happen here when we’re gone —  impresses upon me (again) the intricate, but not at all fragile web of friendships and everyday decisions that ordinarily steadies an ordinary life.

That web steadies also me. Friends visit over dinner, but as to decisions, they stream without end: How to get rid of those wretched plastic bags from Key Goods, which are so dreadful for the environment? How to set the (needlessly complicated) thermostat? How to get rid of the ants in our plants? Over hours and days, decisions were made: by me, by Danny, by Danny and me together, by Danny and me in conference with Gideon and/or his elder sister, Veronica.DSC00107_DxO

East Harlem has been home for only four years. Yet I’ve discovered fragile shoots growing from the soles of my feet; thin, tapering roots, and they are ripping, slowly ripping out, covered in the dirt of East Harlem’s vacant lots, the dust of corner bodegas, haunted by the specter of threatening tattoo parlor signs, murals like the “HOME” one on Second Avenue around 101st Street.

Here are photographs of the neighborhood, things I’ve noticed about where we live, before we go.

Harlem colors

Harlem colors.2_DxO-2


Until soon, bye — Sarah, July 9th, 2017