All’s new in Christchurch

In Auckland, in Queenstown, and most dramatically, in Christchurch, one’s overwhelming impression of NZ is new, new, new. Partly that’s because of the ever-flourishing greenery (Christchurch calls itself “the green city”), yet many other factors contribute to the country’s perpetual sense of freshness. Owing to its isolation –a bunch of islands seemingly floating around in the Pacific – this was one of the last terrains that humans settled, with Pacific Islanders arriving sometime between the 11th and the 13th centuries CE. Since the Maori lived in tribal settlements in wood and thatch, which they rebuilt over and over, the country’s oldest surviving buildings, as far as I can tell, are a handful of dwellings by British colonists from the 1840s onward.

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William’s Cottage, now an art gallery, in Queenstown (1864) — note oval bronze plaque to left of front door

Many if not most landmarks date to the early 20th century, including (surprise!) a  sumptuous little Carnegie Library in Hokitika on the west coast, which we stumbled upon en route to Christchurch, driving up the South Island’s west coast.

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Carnegie Library (1902), Hokitika, now the Hokitika Museum

Despite, or perhaps because of these comparatively slender historical pickings, everywhere we went, we were struck by the determined celebration of local history. (Having spent my 20s with my head, arms, and mind buried in archives, it occurred to me that the availability of records, and the manageability of their number, surely helps facilitate this apparent preoccupation with history — NZ’s land area measures around the size of Great Britain, while its peoples number fewer than five million, which is one-fifth the population of New York City’s metropolitan area). Wherever we went, we frequently found ourselves standing in front of bronze plaques and laminated wood signs, telling tales of the explorer who first navigated this or that fiord, who first huddled into this spit of land, accompanied by his herd of sheep; of the colonist who planted this or that specimen tree, died here, did that.

Also, references to and artifacts of Maori culture pervade linguistic and visual culture, appearing in place names and dual-language signs; celebrated in museums, alluded to in decorative patterns on printed clothing, jade jewelry, statues, stenciled wallpaper. DSC04297_DxO.jpgThe Maori people were never very numerous on these islands; currently, they account for three per cent of the country’s population. Such gestures go part way to redress past wrongs to these indigenous people, to be sure, but I suspect it and all these other historical markers serve a larger function: that of constructing a robust narrative of NZ nationhood and identity.

Even with these historical markers, in cities, the impression is that you are immersed in the recent or the now, and Christchurch, a city of 240,000 on the east coast of the South Island, is the newest of all this new. In 2011, “the shakes” – a 6.3 earthquake – devastated the central area of the city, severely damaging its large cathedral (built between 1864 and 1904), as well as many other historic buildings.

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Rebuilding a small church downtown

95% of the buildings in the central business district were either destroyed in the earthquake itself, or declared unsafe, and subsequently demolished.

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Yup, that’s adjacent to the Central Business District

In residential areas, of the 100,000 homes damaged, approximately 10,000 had to be demolished.

Built environmental junkie types will know Christchurch from Shigeru Ban’s gorgeous, inspiring Transitional Cathedral, aka Cardboard Cathedral, which stands in as the seat for the Anglican ministry, as Christchurch’s old, heavily damaged Cathedral continues its embattled way toward reconstruction.

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Entrance, Shigeru Ban’s Transitional Cathedral

The first major building completed after the earthquake, Ban’s TC was constructed largely of recyclable and/or inexpensive materials: huge cardboard tubes comprise the nave’s vaults; translucent, polycarbonate for the roof;DSC04444_DxO

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The four rectangular rooms with windows are recycled shipping containers

disused shipping containers serve as the ministry offices. The slight curve of the roof off-axis (the shape is not a perfect triangle), DSC04462_DxO.jpgwhich creates a subtle, compelling dynamism in the nave,DSC04459_DxO

matched the bubbly personality of Hilde, a sweet, lively woman who welcomed us by proudly revealing that she was “in her tenth decade”, before she told us, quite informatively, about the city, the church, and her congregation.DSC04434_DxO

All in all, in Christchurch you get to see something both rare and thought-provoking. If you were to build the best city you could ex novo, what would you do? Other such experiments exist. In the past: Brasilia, New Delhi, Chandigarh. Today: Masdar in Abu Dhabi by Foster and Partners, and countless new cities in China, but the former remains largely unexecuted, and the latter exercises are so vast in scale that speed of execution and developer profits were systematically privileged over sophistication in design.

Christchurch may be different. It’s too early to tell for sure. Much of downtown remains a vast construction site littered with empty plots of land, monuments to the city’s ravaged state. But even the way the city has approached those voids is impressive. To keep people’s spirits up amidst all those vacant lots, public art has been installed. DSC04477_DxO

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Glulam arches make a pathway downtown

 

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The brightly colored animals resemble the sheep, for which NZ is justly famous

And there are murals, along with informal installations, too.

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Mural to the left, temporary stage for impromptu performances at right

DSC04415_DxOBuilding has proceeded slowly in the Central Business District — Christchurchians grumble about it, then shrug, adding, it’s a great city. The CBD has been divided into precincts for retail, “innovation” (which I gather means hi-tech), health, performing and visual arts, and “justice and emergency services”. Dozens of large new buildings are under construction: a new metro sports facility, a new central library, a new convention center. A new transit and bus station opened recently.

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New park under construction, with Ban’s Transitional Cathedral to the left

Large green strips of new parkland and green plazas solves one of the central problems of rebuilding; namely, so much less office space is now needed downtown because of people’s increasingly mobile work practices.

If the residential areas are any indication, the results promise to be both instructive and impressive. Christchurchians needed to build homes quickly, so residential development has outpaced commercial and governmental projects. Our Air BnB, called the Little Black Hut, served as a temporary residence for husband-and-wife real estate developers, who had lost their own home during the shakes. Vertical wood siding, stained black, encircles the exterior, and white-stained plywood sheets line its interiors.

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Little Black Hut, Christchurch: A place to stay

DSC04501_DxO.jpgA couple of days of walking around the city suggested that the Little Black Hut’s design finesse was not unusual: most homes are small, but the detailing and compositional sensibility even in little cinder block, wood, or corrugated-metal-sided homes looks pretty well done.DSC04344_DxO

 

DSC04341_DxODSC04332_DxOHow little we missed the “sense of history” so prized amongst Americans! Running into the few remaining Victorian houses, grand and modest, provided enjoyment but not the sense of relief one finds when stumbling upon even modest historic structures in the United States. What we found in Christchurch substantiates the argument I advanced in WtYW that the problem in the US built environment is less old (better)-versus-new (clueless), but the poor design quality and craftsmanship of new construction. In Christchurch, high quality new homes, commercial, and retail buildings could be found everywhere. Even the mediocre buildings are good. DSC04476_DxOStay tuned, then, for the new iteration of New Zealand’s garden city — and dream.

— Sarah

NZ: Queenstown and Milford Sound

New Zealand is not a place I thought I’d ever go – not on my radar screen, figuratively or literally. More, in my ignorance, I thought life would not be the poorer for having skipped it. Only when Danny and I were at a dinner at a friend’s some years ago, and he told us that New Zealand, to which he’d been that past winter, was the most beautiful place he’d ever been, did it occur to me that these islands floating some 900 miles southeast of Australia might be a destination worth considering.

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That friend of ours, he’s been to lots of places, I remember thinking. Maybe we should look into that. Then, some years later, I befriended a lovely woman and discovered she owns a house in the North Island. Still, to lose an entire 24 hours of one’s life to continuous flying! (And that’s one way.) Why choose that when so many delectables lay closer at hand? Especially as New Zealand — tunnel vision confession – seemed to feature precious little distinguished architecture or urbanism, and even less of historic note. When the British colonized in the mid-19th century, the indigenous peoples, the Maori, were still hunter-gatherers. To most people, the thought of New Zealand conjures up little more than Hollywood films: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings.

In the monthslong flurry of researching this journey, reading, flipping through books, ordering more books, reading and flipping through them, speaking to friends and acquaintances, endless clicking on hundreds of websites, New Zealand kept hovering near the top of our minds. Pictures entranced us.

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Just an ordinary view in the South Island. White dots are Merino Sheep.

The Tongariro Alpine Track, the Roteburn track, Milford Sound. Lonely Planet made Auckland sound like a dump, but I found a publication about its recent Viaduct Waterfront renewal that made it look pretty cool. OK. Get on the plane, pull out the computer, work.

Over mostly deep, dark, ominous waters, you fly and fly and fly and fly – total flying time from JFK to Queenstown was nearly 30 hours — but the reward has proven extraordinary. The approach to Queenstown, in the South Island, said it all: New Zealand is absurdly, ridiculously beautiful.

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Approach to Queenstown

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That’s Gideon, standing on the threshold of our porch, with the view reflected in the glass doors

As I write this I sit in the bedroom of our Air BnB in Queenstown, a town of between 14,000-19,000 (sources differ) on the eastern central portion of New Zealand’s South Island, its settlement strung along an inlet of Lake Wakatipu like little beads on a necklace.

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Queenstown’s on the right bank of the lake

Just the view from our bedroom could have kept us in bed all day long,

DSC04195_DxO and here’s the sunrise that greeted us in the morning.

Queenstown sunset_DxOThe climate here, I’m told, is a temperate rain forest, and I’ve never, ever seen landscapes this green – as though, during some bacchanalian festivities in the heavens, buckets of bright green dye were joyously dumped onto these lands.

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No Photoshopping, I swear

Even the names of the geographic landmarks betray a struggle on the part of its early colonizers to accurately describe what they found here. The mountain range surrounding Queenstown is called the Remarkables; the area around Rotorua, the Bay of Plenty. NZ’s place names also betray British colonizers’ sense of humor: one extremely narrow waterway of questionable navigability is called Doubtful Sound. That sense of humor appears to have woven its way into the fabric of contemporary Zealandian cultural sensibility, as in both Queenstown and Christchurch, we found signs exhibiting the natives’ wry attitude about their distance from most of the rest of the world.

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Air New Zealand sign, Queenstown Airport

ChristChurch Art Museum

Sign on the front lawn of Christchurch Art Gallery

Every tourist website, every guidebook, every Top Ten or Top Twenty or just plain top insists upon Milford Sound, in the South Island, was named after Milford Haven in Wales by the British explorer who arrived on its shores in 1820. Getting there is a 4-hour drive from Queenstown, so we opted instead for a day trip in a prop plane, which flew so close to mountain ridges that I found myself reminding myself to breathe as I clutched every fingerhold I could find, unwillingly picturing us plummeting into the rocks,

DSC04000_DxOand trees.

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Staggering views of snow-capped mountains, fjords, and some grass-covered farms in a place called Paradise, dotted with Merino sheep. (In NZ, Merino wool garments are everywhere on offer.) The boat ride around the sound itself proved less spectacular than we’d been led to believe it would be, but still:

DSC04049_DxOseeing those mountains shooting straight out of its deep, black waters is unforgettable.

— Sarah

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

 

 

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

Sossusvlei’s Sand Dunes

Beauty in desolation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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and poetically dead trees,

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

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

–Danny

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

Epic and commanding. Check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Indeed, patterns were everywhere.

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Deadvlei’s salt pan surface

And in Deadvlei, the figure-ground relationships!

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

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

— 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’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,

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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),

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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