Volcanos and Calderas: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

DSC04576_DxO_2New Zealanders, with their seemingly infinite capacity to charm, charmingly call trekking or hiking “tramping”, which constitutes something of a national pastime. Tourist brochures and government-sponsored websites alike advertise the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as the best one-day tramp in the country. Not for the faint of heart, though. It’s 19.4 kilometers (nary a water source along the way), with official estimates advising that hikers to plan on between six and eight hours, with the ominous addendum, “depending upon your condition”.  You are also repeatedly reminded to pack for different kinds of weather events: you can shiver in pelting sleet and sweat in blazing rays of sun in a single day. Or you can find yourself at the peak of a dry, sandy, 10-foot-wide ridge huddling against 65 mile-per-hour winds, as happened the day after we set out on this monumental — just no other word for it — journey. Some years ago, authorities, knocking their heads together about how to adequately alarm hikers (any number have died here over the years) into packing sensibly, settled upon the seductive, but probably ineffectual name change, and the generations-marinated Tongariro Crossing became the Tongariro ALPINE Crossing.

The path goes up a valley to the saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, both active volcanos. We and our fellow hikers — a simpatico, hail-fellow-well-met, mostly international crew — are repeatedly exhorted to stick to the designated route. If you do, you pass a sign below Tongariro, the largest, offering instructions in the event that it erupts in your presence. Item one: “Move away as quickly as you are able”. I laughed, and we proceeded without bothering to read the rest.

How to convey the experience of that day? Readers may thank me for discarding my first idea, which was to snap a photo every five minutes through the entire trek and to post every one here, sequentially, with the logic being that nothing else would suffice to impart the dual sense the day gifted to us: arrested time, infinite space. Instead, I offer, in sequential order, highlights of some of the awesome moments which came to us, step by step by step, at the infinitesimal pace of human locomotion.

DSC04583_DxO

When we started, clouds draped Mount Tongariro in shades of white. Slowly, the ground cover changes: less grass, and less green, now scattered in wheat-colored clumps aside low scrub brush and lichen-covered rocks.DSC04590_DxO

DSC04594_DxO

Eventually, the proportion of grass to dirt tips decisively in favor of earth, as the pure conical shape of the Tongariro crater comes into view.

Surprise number one: Red! The Red Crater rises 6200 feet above sea level.  DSC04623_DxODSC04627_DxO

Eventually, you enter a desolate, soil and rock-strewn bowl which leads around the active, still steaming vent.

DSC04641_DxO

As you approach the Red Crater to circumambulate its perimeter, all flora disappear and you are left with acres liberally strewn with black, volcanic rock. The last eruption was in the late 1970s.

DSC04673_DxO

At the crest of the next peak, this culminates in a succession of extraordinary compositions. The pictures illustrating this post were culled from the 140+ photos I shot that day.

DSC04642_DxOCircumventing the Red Crater (you couldn’t actually ascend it) brought you into view of the vaginal-looking orifice from which all that lava spewed during its last eruption. From there, you began your multi-houred descent. Around one bend, you see this: the Emerald Lakes (at right). At left-center, in middle distance, you can just glimpse the Blue Lake, and behind it in the horizon, Lake Tapuo, which is a caldera of a different volcano, about 90 miles away. DSC04651_DxO

DSC04680_DxO

The Emerald Lakes sit at the edge of a large, grass-covered pan which resembles, a bit, the Amphitheater at the Drakensburg in South Africa. This was shot from the other end of the pan, looking back at the Red Crater.

DSC04633_DxO

DSC04701_DxO

On the way down to the exit (which entailed some climbing up, too), the landscape serves up an exuberant riot of muted color.

Near the top of the descent:

DSC04700_DxO

And slowly, again, the proportion of volcanic rock to ground cover and grasses shifts. DSC04703_DxO

By late afternoon, you’ve spent over an hour trekking through an absurdly dense, all-embracing rain forest. Nothing to shoot except deep shadows, ferns, moss, and spreading palm leaves.

And then — you’re done.

DSC04710_DxO-1

One last shot, taken en route to our next destination, showed where we’d been, from a distance. All three of us completed the trek in seven hours, without rushing. Reveling in my inexperience and my enthusiasm, I declared the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the best hike in the world.

— Sarah

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.

DSC04133_DxO

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.

DSC04306_DxO

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.

DSC04420_DxO.jpg

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.

DSC04468_DxO.jpg

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.

DSC04426_DxO

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

DSC04464_DxO

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

DSC04397_DxO

Glulam arches make a pathway downtown

 

DSC04416_DxO

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

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

DSC04410_DxO

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.

DSC04421_DxO

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.

DSC04507_DxO

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

Nature’s first green is gold

New Zealand’s landscape taxes the vocabulary. Especially, the greens.

DSC04113_DxO

Cobalt green turquoise waters of Milford Sound — or is it aqua green?

Fern fronds are the national symbol, and they are frequently represented in Maori art.

New Zealanders call themselves Kiwis — it’s because of the bird, not the fruit — but kiwi is everywhere on offer, including kiwi juice.

med322017

Kiwi green

Jade is everywhere.

DSC04310_DxO

Precut jade

It comes in lots of colors, all of them green.

DSC04295_DxO

Transparent jade

DSC04303_DxO

And it’s used for all sorts of things, even benches. Decided this is pthalo green.

Even inspires the architecture, on occasion. Lime green?

DSC04318_DxO

DSC04265_DxO

And if that’s lime green, what’s this? Squishy wet grass in Franz Josef Glacierland.

DSC04322_DxO

Forest green, grass green, pthalo green, jungle green, moss green, laurel green, cinnabar green . . . they’re all here.

— 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.

DSC04248_DxO

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.

DSC04232_DxO

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.

20171029_105913_DxO_DxO

Approach to Queenstown

DSC04199_DxO

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.

DSC04166_DxO.jpg

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.

DSC04253_DxO

DSC04254_DxO

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.

DSC03961_DxO_DxO.jpg

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.

DSC04019_DxO

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.

DSC04142_DxO

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

A Journeyer’s Bargain

Change of pace: New Zealand.

 

20171028_160218_DxO.jpg

Sky Tower, Auckland

 

No targets on our back. Not unicultural. Women not effectively absent from public sphere. What relief. It’s enough to lead an atheist to say Thank God (a pluralist one). Of course, each country, city, landscape must be seen in its own terms, just as, of course, it is undesirable to do so and, strictly speaking, it is cognitively impossible.

First impressions of New Zealand derive from a day (of, after 30 hours of traveling over two days, post-travel resuscitation) in Auckland (North Island) and then a few days in Queenstown and its environs (South Island). Auckland offers the face of a multiethnic and multicultural world.

 

 

20171028_162545_DxO_DxO.jpg

Free food next to honeybee garden in Auckland

To our surprise, walking around the downtown area, we came across sections and cafes where Asian faces predominate. When we asked a fellow on the street for a direction, we discovered, as we walked together, that he was from Thailand attending cooking school in Auckland to learn European cooking, with the hope of remaining in New Zealand (more opportunity, better weather, and welcoming society). The locals (our Thai aspiring-chef included) all – without exception – interact in a friendly, cheery, and open manner (even the customs officials tasked with enforcing New Zealand’s stringent food importation laws hosannahed us, as if we were doing New Zealand a solid, as we ticked off the permitted items in our possession). Women and men mix openly and equally in all discernable places and phases of the public sphere, something the world teaches is not to be taken for granted and therefore merits a mention.

 

 

20171029_105910_DxO_DxO.jpg

View from plane from Auckland to Queenstown

Then, there’s the landscape, really the landscapes of the southern part of the South Island, which are magnificent in myriad describable and indescribable ways. About such natural wonders in particular, we will be offering up considerably more words and images in coming posts.

 

All told, New Zealand promises a relaxing and rewarding time, so far confirmed by limited experience. Traveling can be stressful, even when nothing goes wrong. Traveling’s continual progression of logistics – routine barely exists, so nearly everything every day needs to be figured out and decided — often entails executive-function demands which can tax the system, especially when the system is composed of three systems. New Zealand, land of (seemingly) easygoing people, functioning infrastructure, pleasingly accented English, abundant gluten-free food, charming urban areas (sample so far is small),

20171028_160255_DxO_DxO.jpg

Funky new neighborhood in Auckland

and breathgiving landscapes, so far has taxed us less and rewarded us as much as anywhere. A journeyer’s bargain.

 

— Danny

Destination: New Zealand

Gideon couldn’t resist the Shake Shack French fries available near gate 35 at JFK as we took off for leg 2 of the great adventure, even though they are not advertised as gluten-free. “I’ve eaten them plenty of times and it’s always been fine.” Danny and I looked at each other, and shrugged.

Several hours into our flight, Gideon confessed he was feeling sick. Then, sicker. He began to insist that I corral the flight attendant, who was in the middle of serving meals, and demand that she allow him to decamp from Economy and take up residence in First Class, because of his condition. He began to sweat. Then he was cold. He feared vomiting. Finally, I did manage to locate three contiguous unoccupied seats at the very back of the plane, approached a flight attendant, who kindly offered to move the backpacks and coats spread out there so that Gideon could lie down and rest.

Half an hour later, I went back to check on him, and Gideon asked me to sit with him. I settled into the aisle seat, and he snuggled his head into my lap. After a few minutes, he said, “Talk to me.”

Danny and Gideon have a default conversational setting. It serves multiple and various functions, depending upon what’s switched it on. Emotional connection. Injury salve, distraction when vials of blood are being drawn from a vein. Exercises in the art of analytical thinking. Strategical inquiry. Information sharing. Passing the time during this or that boring interlude during the day — long drive, waiting in a line. More. That setting could be called GESPN, Goldhagen Entertainment Sports Network. When switched on, GESPN is usually but not always tuned to football, though other sports, basketball, soccer, bicycle racing are also featured.

To extend the metaphor, the only network to which Gideon and I routinely turn might be called GEGAN –Goldhagen Entertainment Goofing Around Network. And in this situation, GEGAN was not appropriate. Flummoxed. I asked, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” Hoping the answer was no.

“Yes.”

For years, I’ve considered myself a rotten storyteller. In college, for an assignment in creative writing I produced a short story, a revenge fantasy about a boyfriend who’d dumped me. My kindly, beloved writing professor, Sears Jayne, whom I would have done nearly anything to please, called me out on it. “It reads like a poison pen note from a jilted lover”, he wrote. Humiliated, I concluded that storytelling would never be my thing, and it never has been. Ask me to tell you a story and my mind becomes empty, a wasteland.

OK Sarah, deliver, I said to myself. Your son is sick.

First I told him a highly elaborated version of the Three Little Pigs which Gideon, surprisingly, had never heard. (What kind of mother was I, anyway, I thought, amused.) It began with Once Upon a Time, ended in the conventional way, and when I’d concluded it, I thought to myself, well, that should convince him that he needs no more stories from me.

“Tell me another,” Gideon said.

Oh, dear. OK, I said, give me a minute. Thinking. That first attempt was framed as a little kid’s story, and he liked it, so let’s stick with that. Images and vignettes flooded my mind until I settled on my childhood in Woodstock, Vermont.

“Once upon I time,” I began, buying myself time. “Once upon a time there was a little girl who had lots and lots of brothers and sisters,” I continued. What next? “Every summer, they lived in a big old house on top of a hill in a little town, where they all argued and played and wrestled and ignored one another, and listened in on each other’s phone conversations.

“The little girl, whose name was Sylvia, was much, much younger than her brothers and sisters. Sylvia was really, really little. And all her brothers and sisters had Big Personalities—one sister was The Brain, one brother was The Rebel, another The Comedian, and so on. They all took up a lot of space, with their Big Personalities. So Sylvia, who was young, often felt very, very small. Sometimes, she felt as though she was invisible.

“Every once in a while, the family’s Daddy would say, ‘How about going to the White Cottage for lunch?’ The White Cottage was a little outdoor diner sitting at the edge of a river, a bit outside of town.

“The White Cottage, the White Cottage!” the children yelled. “Let’s go to the White Cottage!” So they all piled into their Daddy’s light blue convertible with the top down (this was the days before safety and seat belts), and Daddy drove everyone to the White Cottage.

“Once they’d ordered their burgers and fries and milkshakes, one of Sylvia’s brothers turned to her and said, ‘Let’s go down to the river to play until the food comes.’ He took Sylvia by the hand and they scuttered on the dirt down the steep slope to the riverbank together. They took off their socks and sneakers to wade, because it was a very hot day. The Ottaqueechee River was shallow, old, and cool, with lots of soft, smooth rocks lining its bed. Sylvia and her brother waded in until the water came midway up their shins.

“The brother said, ‘Let’s build a house for the fish.’

“Sylvia laughed. ‘Fish don’t live in houses!’

“’They might,’ her brother said. ‘Maybe they do and we just don’t know it. They might just thank us for it.’ Sylvia knew that fish didn’t talk, either. But, since her brother was so much older than her, she began to question what she did and did not know about fish. Together they began gathering up stones.

“At the White Cottage, food always took a very long time to come, so they had time to gather up lots of stones.

“The brother said solemnly, ‘We must make it a big house, because the Ottaqueechee has a lot of fish.’ With great determination, they started constructing the house. ‘Fish houses must be round,’ the brother advised Sylvia. Slowly, they constructed a round wall, about five feet from side to side. ‘The upstream wall should be a lot lower than the downstream wall, so they can get in,’ the brother continued, so they did that too, as they worked.

“As they were finishing, Sylvia heard her father yell, ‘Kids! Food’s here!’ She and her brother stood up. Sylvia noticed that a couple of fish had, indeed, already entered their new home. They seemed happy, swimming around in it. The river flowed on.

“’Bye fish,’ Sylvia said.

“’Bye fish,’ her big brother said.

“The largest of all the fish swam up to the surface, and bobbed its head upwards.

“’Hey!’ The fish said in a loud, strong, voice. ‘Thanks for our house!’

“Sylvia and her brother looked at each other, and laughed. Then they scrambled back up the riverbank, and joined the family to eat lunch.”

Once I finished the story, I looked down at Gideon, who had tears in his eyes. “Is that you and Rog?” he asked.

Yes, I answered. Then he fell asleep.

— Sarah

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.

DSC03792_DxO DSC03620_DxO_DxO.jpgDSC03835_DxO.jpg

DSC03637_DxO

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

DSC03772_DxO_DxO

DSC03557_DxO

 

DSC03555_DxO

DSC03775_DxO

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

 

 

Strangeness

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

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

DSC03743_DxO

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t they want to be with women?

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

Don’t they like women?

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

DSC03594_DxO.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC03659_DxO.jpg

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

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

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

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

— Sarah

 

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