While we are away, life goes on. Worse Than War just reached the milestone of one million views on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7cZuhqSzzc
While we are away, life goes on. Worse Than War just reached the milestone of one million views on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7cZuhqSzzc
New 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.
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.
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.
Eventually, you enter a desolate, soil and rock-strewn bowl which leads around the active, still steaming vent.
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.
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.
Circumventing 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.
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.
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:
And slowly, again, the proportion of volcanic rock to ground cover and grasses shifts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The 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.
95% of the buildings in the central business district were either destroyed in the earthquake itself, or declared unsafe, and subsequently demolished.
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.
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;
disused shipping containers serve as the ministry offices. The slight curve of the roof off-axis (the shape is not a perfect triangle), which creates a subtle, compelling dynamism in the nave,
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.
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.
And there are murals, along with informal installations, too.
Building 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.
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.
A 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.
How 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. Stay tuned, then, for the new iteration of New Zealand’s garden city — and dream.
New Zealand’s landscape taxes the vocabulary. Especially, the greens.
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.
Jade is everywhere.
It comes in lots of colors, all of them green.
And it’s used for all sorts of things, even benches. Decided this is pthalo green.
Even inspires the architecture, on occasion. Lime green?
And if that’s lime green, what’s this? Squishy wet grass in Franz Josef Glacierland.
Forest green, grass green, pthalo green, jungle green, moss green, laurel green, cinnabar green . . . they’re all here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just the view from our bedroom could have kept us in bed all day long,
and here’s the sunrise that greeted us in the morning.
The 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.
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.
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,
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:
seeing those mountains shooting straight out of its deep, black waters is unforgettable.
Change of pace: New Zealand.
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.
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.
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),
and breathgiving landscapes, so far has taxed us less and rewarded us as much as anywhere. A journeyer’s bargain.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
That’s first. Next: extreme complexity in surface patterning.
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.
Sometimes, in larger buildings, internal rooms with tiny windows butt up onto rooms opening onto subcourtyards with skylit roofs.
Spatial 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).
In 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.
I found Morocco the least interesting place we’ve visited, which is not so much a knock on Morocco as a testament to how fabulously captivating and invigorating our journey’s country-stops have been. After Marrakech, we spent two days driving through the Atlas Mountains on demandingly narrow and windy roads,
and visiting two historic sites, one barely on the beaten track and the other of movie and vernacular architectural fame.
The first was in Telouet, the former stronghold of the leading French collaborator preceding Morocco’s independence in 1956.
Only a few ornate rooms survive of his Kasbah, and — in their materiality, design intricacy, and integrated composition — they offer a splendid example of Islamic decoration/craft/art.
One central room is spectacular.
Sarah, Gideon, and I had an ongoing discussion both about the status of Islamic decoration/craft/art, as whatever its intricacies and pleasing qualities may be, their status as one or the other or the third seems not so obvious, at least to me. A reason I was less enamored with Morocco is that, if its geometric patterning in tile, plaster, and wood is art (which I tend to doubt), then it is art that fails to hold, let alone fascinate, me. Sarah tends to come down on the other side, but I suspect she sort-of agrees with me – Sarah, it’s time to rise to the challenge! Gideon has sided with his Mom but that’s because he sides with himself.
The second, Ait Ben Haddou, is an intact, abandoned town that speaks visually for itself, a fan favorite as the busloads of day-trippers attest.
It is famous as the stage set for films, including most famously Gladiator. We walked in Russell Crowe’s footsteps!!! One merchant (a few structures house tourist-friendly goods) proudly showed us the room in his building where Crowe was imprisoned, and insisted, very good-naturedly, that he and I be photographed there together.
He told us that he was in the film (among five others) and even the princely sum (which for per-capita-income-challenged Morocco it is) that he received daily for six months for his Gladiatorial film work. I imagined I had remembered him in the film, even though I saw it when it came out twenty years ago. I’ll have to check. The town itself is picturesque and suggestive from afar as it steps us the hill,
from which it seems to burst forth fully formed and colored in its earthy turrets and more, but far less impressive to walk through which experientially is nothing special. Gideon dubbed it a dud and even Sarah, who sees it as a vernacular Parthenon, admitted performatively after several dozen minutes (“I’m ready to go”) that there’s not much to see there beyond its overall, stunning profile.
Gideon loves mountains, and the Atlas captured his fancy.
He would have liked to spend several more days in them driving and hiking. They were unexpectedly beautiful, though my need, as our driver, to stay utterly focused on the guardrail-less sliver-thin mountain roads, led me to miss most of it. But the oohs and aahs, and the more evolutionarily advanced modes of expressed-appreciation which Gideon showered us with left the basis for his determination to return to the Atlas unmistakable. Unfortunately for him we had to move on, or, even if we didn’t absolutely have to, we did anyway.
A day of impromptu R&R by the pool in Marrakech, was followed by two days in the vibrant if tourist-site-poor, white city of eponymous Casablanca, which we all really liked and, for its grittiness and vibrancy, liked much more than the far more celebrated Marrakech. We left Morocco without having seen the north, including Fes and Meknes, and having (after Namibia) skipped the desert. I feel no need to return. Sarah would like to. And Gideon intends to. The Atlas Mountains call.
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,
that 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.
A 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,
traversing 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,
we 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.
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.
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.
Of 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)
than 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,
a 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.
But the Jardin Marjorelle… the magical Jardin Marjorelle…