Ceci ne pas une touriste

I heard someone say that Queenstown is an arch “tourist” town, with seemingly every establishment catering to tourists.

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DSC04148_DxOAn army of eateries, several divisions of sleeperies, DSC04149_DxO_DxO.jpg

a battalion of outdoor clothing and gear stores, and a few platoons of tour and adventure agencies dominate the town. Yet I immediately objected, as it seemed to me that using “tourist” to describe the people or the town misconstrues their character and purpose. In that instant, I hadn’t thought through the relevant issues but merely reacted to the sense that “tourist” doesn’t fit. Here are a few (perhaps overwrought) thoughts as to why this term roused me so linguistically.

Most of the people you see in Queenstown bear the markings of visitors, but that doesn’t make them tourists, as there is more than one subspecies of visitor, which is another way of saying that all visitors are not tourists.

DSC04123_DxODSC04136_DxOBefore pursuing this line, I admit that I recoil a bit from being labeled a tourist, as, whatever its original sense, today it sounds so unserious and connotes at least partly negatively, and I like to buoy my spirits with the mental placebo that what we (Sarah and I, and Sarah, Gideon, and I) should not be clothed in this appellation.

DSC04188_DxO5f9cba39-438a-4ace-8fc4-b360387dba6cMuch of what we do when we visit places relates to our, especially Sarah’s, professional work, and this journey is intended to produce at least a couple of books, so my own perhaps at least partly self-deceptive self-conception as anything but an authenticity-sullying tourist is buttressed and legitimized by our vocational bents and activities. We are at once anthropologists of the globalized world, sociologists of the built and unbuilt environment, social psychologists of family life, and cultural critics of the arts and gluten-free food. Alas, to the untrained eye, we look and sound like tourists. The diagnostic truism “If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck…” is either on the money or, like many truisms, not clever enough by half.

It seems that most of the people visiting Queenstown are the snowless equivalent to the out-of-towners at ski resorts, who do not get described as tourists – because they are there for an activity, other than taking in “sights” and sampling local wares and fares.

DSC04122_DxOThus, we call the people at Stowe or Alta “skiers”. The problem with naming the visitors to Queenstown is that we have no linguistic concept that captures what they are, and so we are stuck with choosing between the anodyne “visitors” and the iodine “tourists”.
Unless, of course, you waste a few words and a little time musing about linguistic effrontery and injustice.

— Danny

Morocco’s Architecture and Tradition

Frozen in time. From the first day we entered the Kasbah in Marrakesh through the end of our trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site Aït Ben Haddou, that was my overwhelming impression of Morocco.

IMG_20170928_165716_776_DxOThe exception was Casablanca, but Fez, people tell me, confers this impression with even greater intensity. In its sense of arrested time, Morocco felt very different from other developing societies I’ve encountered. Take India. In India, people’s lives are saturated with tradition, but they do not, or at least did not appear to me to reject modernity. In some of Morocco’s most distant reaches, people seem only dimly aware that modern societies even exist. What are they watching on satellite TV?

Traditional Moroccan architecture, which is most Moroccan architecture, can be characterized thus. Walls, walls, and walls.

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That’s first. Next: extreme complexity in surface patterning.

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Last: extreme simplicity of spatial organization. Whether it’s the riad courtyard houses, or a palace complex such as Bahia Palace, or the Ben Youssef Medrasa, spatial arrangements vary very little. Small rooms, or concentric layers of smaller and larger rooms, encircling open air courtyards.

DSC03526_DxO.jpgSometimes, in larger buildings, internal rooms with tiny windows butt up onto rooms opening onto subcourtyards with skylit roofs.

DSC03784_DxOSpatial organization, spatial sequences – all are straightforward, even banal. (If the site varies topographically, sometimes there’s a little more action, as in the palace at Telouet.) So the colorful, intricate patterns constitute the only means of arresting our visual interest — or, to invert the formulation, to compensate for the lack of design complexity.

On the drive from Aït Ben Haddou back to Marrakesh, Danny, Gideon and I discussed this, noting that although we’d seen many of central Morocco’s premier monuments, we’d discerned scant artistic development. Always, Zelig (ceramic tile mosaics) stretching from the floor to shoulder-level; intricate, lacy plasterwork above; then wood, painted and carved, on top (the wood needs to be on top because it spans ceilings, windows, doors).

DSC03765_DxOIn no place we visited did that differ.

To explain to Gideon the difference between the architectural tradition as we’ve encountered it in Morocco and the western one, I used painting, with which he is more familiar. Think about what a Giotto looks like, I said. Then compare it to Leonardo’s Madonna and Child in the Louvre, and then compare that to Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The subject is the same; the paintings don’t look at all alike. Each artist, in some way, was trying to express something new, even if he was also building on established traditions. Here, the mosaic work in Telout’s Kasbah (early 20th century) resembles the mosaic work in Marrakesh’s Ben Youssef Medrasa (16th century).

So, art or craft? Reluctantly, I concede: Danny’s correct.

That’s it for Morocco.

–Sarah

 

 

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

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.

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%.)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

–Danny

 

Amsterdam

Veronica has joined us.

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In coordinated flights along two vectors, we intersected almost perfectly temporally and spatially – thus, along the (by now) four classical dimensions — landing us within fifteen minutes (that’s a temporal blink of the eye) within a few hundred yards (a spatial hop) of one another in the space-time continuum known as Schiphol Airport on July 29, a little after 11 AM.

Among the many things that the twenty-first century has us taking for granted is the ease with which we move over vast spaces (planes), with stunning surety (schedules), and with amazingly easy coordination (the web). Sarah commented to us a few days earlier during our six-hour walk from Myrdal to Flam that completing such a slow, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sojourn reminds us, and more conveys, how arduous and time-consuming moving from place to place has been for most of human history.

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Sarah, Gideon, and I know that for many reasons we are fortunate – we know it every waking hour – and are also historically fortunate to be able to undertake our global venture. One additional reason that is germane here is we do so in an age when Veronica can easily hop on a plane in New York and with stunning precision land within easily measurable feet and minutes from us in Amsterdam.

In an instant, our family of four is reunited, is whole again, though it turns out, only fleetingly for the first couple of Amsterdam-days because Gideon’s good friend Mike from last summer’s Madrid program has come to Amsterdam for the weekend, so Gideon and he, late-teenagers that they are, have intensive one-on-one life-experience to share. That’s okay in a way, because Veronica, who is twenty-one, and we have much to catch up on and discuss as well, even though we saw her but a seeming blink of an eye of a fortnight ago.

We all (including Gideon and Mike on their own) spend the first few days doing what central Amsterdam invites visitors to do with such grace. To walk and walk and walk. I’ve never been in another city which so tempts and rewards (a rare enough combination) human ambulation.

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Some might say Venice, the archetypical canal city does, but for various reasons — including it is hardly a city or, being a relic as theme park, it is hardly a real place — it doesn’t come close. London and Paris and Tokyo and Barcelona (and Gideon’s beloved Madrid), oh yes, New York, offer their own significant ambulatory rewards, but, again, for many reasons, including their vastness, they rise not to the same walk-about level as our Dutch champion does.

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Of course, I haven’t been everywhere, so a city or two or three unvisited by me might yet capture my anointing-fancy. But no matter, or the existence of such inviting urbanity would be stupendous and a future treat to behold without it altering Amsterdam’s distinctive quality compared to so many other cities I love to walk around – I do, by the way, love to walk, and as with my other loves I do my best to keep as narrow as possible the gap between precept and practice.

I realize that my characterization of Amsterdam, tailing off without further elucidation, stands a bit totteringly as a tease. I may make good on its promise, and straighten its as yet unexplained posture, with my next post, but as there are so many things and themes to write about (the notes I jot down are already voluminous) perhaps some other topics will tempt and capture my compositional fancy and, if so, I hope will (that rarity again) reward yours.

— Danny, 6 August 2017, posted from Ghent

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