Wednesday, April 15, 2009

blog glitches

I am discovering that the layout I give the blog is not necessarily how it looks once posted; not even on my own computer. But at least mine is close. I am getting some reports, and have now viewed it twice on other people's computers, that sometimes the photos overlap or have text on top of the photos.

I am not sure how to correct this as the compostion looks great as I do it. And while some of the photos get bounced about a little, my version has no lettering on photos nor overlapping photos.

I'd love to hear from folks. So far the three people I know who have overlaps use mozilla. Is that just coincidence? How about you folks who are using Google? And what about those of you with similar blog sites. How does my layout look and have you ever had reports of issues with your layout?

Big news is that I just bought myself a digital SLR. I've enjoyd the Sony Cybershot I bought a couple years ago and it was easy to travel with. But I think my new Nikon D-90 is going to be a joy. The view finder/screen are so bright and easy to see, I have a great depth of field button again, and greater control over depth of field, speed etc and a much quicker focusing system. BUT, its going to take a while to learn it. In just a bit over a month I will be taking folks out on photo safaris in Yellowstone.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reflections on southern Morocco and the Sahara

The Sahara--palm trees in an oasis, camels, men in blue turbans, blowing sand, nomadic people living in tents. Those are images of Morocco. And they are true. But so are the souks and medinas of the northern cities, fishing boats along the Mediterranean and Atlantic Coasts, minarets, mosques, tanneries, rug weaving, high snow covered mountains, the fertile rift valley, goats climbing trees, saffron harvesting, henna, and food. Always the food.

Here is Mohamad Elbahri, our leader for our trip through southern Morocco. He was warm, funny, caring, concsientious. In all, a delightful person to travel with on our adventures through high mountains, to the end of the road, where pavement ends and sand begins, and on to the coast.

The second half of the Moroccan adventure began in Marrakech, climbed into the High Atlas Mountains where there was snow, crossed the spectacular Tizi n'Tichka Pass, passed through small village of adobe structures, palmeries where date palms fed on oasis waters, a weekly market, a camel ride and sleeping in a tent in the sanddunes, a 4 wheel ride that left us all bruised but laughing, and onto to the west coast of this magnificent country.

The High Atlas Mountains. North Africa's highest peak, Mount Toubkal was visible from the terrace of our small mountain gite, a guest house. It was cold. Even me, who feels the cold less than most people, found it cold. But our host built a fire and plied us with mint tea and, later, a hot, delicious meal. While the younger members of my party hiked, scaled ice fields and scrambled up to the pilgramage shrine of Sidi Chamoarouch while I played "jacks" with rocks with girls in the village.

Below, Mohamad pours our tea. The scene is the rooftop of our guesthouse.

On our way south and at a lower elevation, we stopped at a weekly market. In the big cities there are markets all the time. The villages have weekly markets and we were there for one. You could buy plastic wash buckets, plucked and ready to cook chickens, produce, or a live donkey or goat. Treadle sewing machines , shoe repair for people or your donkey or mule, a haircut and shave, or a tooth pulled; it was all there.

You know you have reached the Sahara at the town of Zagora where the sign reads "52 days to Timbouctou." A one hour camel ride the next day satisfied my desire to ride one. I can now say I've ridden on both a bactrian and a dromedary camel.

Ait Benaddou, below, is an old casbah. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A fortified village with castle, it served for centuries as a caravan stop. Camel caravans carried goods across the Sahara. The site is also known around the world as it is the setting for many movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator, Alexander, Babel and others.

Yeah, that's me getting across the river, high at that time, to explore the old casbah. There are several kinds of 4X4 in the Sahara. There is Berber 4X4 which is camel, mule or donkey. and then there is automotive 4X4, often Japanese.

A camel ride:

Mohamad teaches me how to wrap my turban. It is protection from the sun with a ready flap should the sand start to blow. our tent camp in the desert.

From the desert we took mechanical 4X4 to a place where our minivan could pick us up. Unlike the first part of the trip where we used trains and buses, taxis , the second half the trip is all in areas with less pubic transportation. We had our own mini van to carry us.

As we traveled through Agadir, Mohamad told us he had gone to University there. We asked if we could drive by and see. After a conversation with Hassan, our driver, we wound about in narrow streets. Instead of the University, Mohamad had a treat for us. He took us to the flat where he had lived. He asked us to wait in the car, bounded up the stairs and came back a bit later with a young man. This young man was from Mohamad's mountain village and had taken on the flat when Mohamad left. It is a large room, shared with 6 young men, mattresses on the floor and studying done sitting on the bed. There is a kitchen, a toilet and shower, and a small outside terrace where food can be cooked and clothes dried. We were invited in. On Friday afternoon all of the inhabitants were home. I think I would have been appalled at having a group of foreign visitors drop in on me at their age, but they were charming. Jeff was soon playing checkers on a homemade board with rocks for pieces. In no time, tea and cookies were served. Someone had run to a local market for the cookies. All of them spoke English, some more the others, and we sat around conversing until we really had to get going. In our next stop we discovered a beautiful checker, chess, backgammon board and bought it for them. Mohamad would deliver it next time he went through town. Mohamad had never taken people to the apartment before. But with only 4 of us, a good comraderie, and our expressed interest in his schooling, home life, future, he decided to share it with us. Now that the blog is almost done, my next chore is to make prints of photos along the trip to be delivered to people. Each of the young men will get a print of this and I will do an enlargement for the wall.

Our final 2-night stop before returning to Marrakech for a night and flights out, was the seaside town of Essaouira. Again we stayed in a Riad, a home once belonging to a wealthy person and now used as a small hotel. This one was charming, and close to both the harbor and the medina. From the roof we could see the ocean.

left: looking up thru the inner courtyard -atrium of our riad. right: street scene of child with bread. It was stormy and most boats were in the harbor and not out fishing.

Reflections on Marrakech

Marrakech was the ending point for part one of the Moroccan trip and the starting and ending point for the southern half. Since blog entries are getting a bit long, I'll do Marrakech by itself.

Fun, vibrant, historic, I found I could walk around in the medina here, shop in the souks, without getting lost. After Fes, that made this a relaxed stop where I could do some shopping and exploring without needing a guide. In Intrepid style, the whole group did not have to go together and it was enjoyable to wander with one or two people.
One of the fun things to do there is to go to Djemaa el-Fna. This square has for centuries been a gathering place where people hawk their goods by day and find entertainment at night. the evening the food vendors set up their tents and cooking stalls, hauling them out in carts from some storage area. Soon a huge area is filled with the scents of food cooking.
My second group, on the left consisted of our leader, Mohamad, Maryann from Australia, Ann, from Ohio, and Jeff from Michigan

Reflections on Northern Morocco

It is not quite a month since my return. Although I have been busy with moving the rig from Arizona to California, getting servicing, seeing friends along the way, restocking the refrigerator, doing taxes, my mind is still in Morocco. I bought a mint plant to carry with me so I always have fresh mint and I sit, working on the computer or reading, sipping my Moroccan style mint tea. I cooked a Moroccan meal of couscous and beef with prunes and apricots for friends in Tonopah, AZ. And I am reliving the experience as I organize my photos and update the blog.
I finished with the photos of Spain two days ago. The highlight of Spain was the Pueblo Ingles program (check it out at http://www.puebloingles/ and look for the Anglo section.

I loved Morocco. What more can I add? Look out, I can probably add a lot.

My most intense impressions of Morocco are of incredibly good food, colors, geographical diversity, and warm hospitality. Its hard to know how to share it all with you. Briefly I will give an overview of the way I traveled and include photos to try to convey some of the experience.

I flew to Casa Blanca. The next afternoon I met the group. This was an Intrepid trip. I traveled with Intrepid on my Bejing to St. Petersburg rail trip through Mongolia and Siberia a few years ago and I like their small group, use of small guest houses, involvement in social projects in the countries where they operate. The company is out of Australia and the participants are generally young English speaking travelers. In the case of my Morocco trip, I chose to do the "Best of North and South" which was actually a combination of two trips. The first half had 10 participants, mostly from Australia, but one from Canada, me, two from England but one lives in New Zealand now, one New Zealander who currently lives in Australia, one Australian studying in Austria, and others traveling on many month journeys. Since Australia is a long ways from elsewhere, I have found round the world trips are not uncommon.
Our leader was Redouane, a 22 year old Berber man from the High Atlas Mountains. Still a student, he is a superb leader. His thoughtfulness, his humor, his smooth organizational skills, and perseptiveness made him an ideal person to spend 8 days with.

A couple of us visited the Hassan II mosque in Casa Blanca. This is a showpiece and the only mosque in the country which non Muslims may enter. Other than this experience, Casa Blanca is a big city and not my favorite spot in Morocco.

Hassan II Mosque from the outside and two details of ceilings.

Like teachers everywhere, this one was encouraging his students to run around and work off some excess energy before their visit inside. Intrepid, when possible uses public transportation. So the next morning we took a train to Rabat, the capital and had several hours to wander in the whitewashed Medina (old quarter), with views of the ocean. We took taxis for a 45 minute ride to Moulay Idriss. This town is a Mecca for Moroccan Muslims as Moulay Idriss was the man who brought Islam to Morocco. The town is small, built on a steep hill. We stayed in a small guest house and had a demonstration of how to make pastille, a pastry filled sweet and savory mix of poultry, almonds and seasonings. We hiked the steep streets to watch the sunset. I ended up talking with a young student who's English language book I spied. We exchanged email addresses and have emailed a few times.

I was up early and went for a walk. At first I was surprised at the liter on the streets as, up till that point, streets had been clean. Then I realised it was garbage pick up time and unfortunately some of the many cats had torn open some of the bags. But soon a man came along with his donkey and picked up the trash and put them in the baskets on the donkey. A donkey would be the only way to have garbage pickup as the streets are frequently flights of stairs. I enjoyed being awakened by the call to the faithful from the minarets, seeing people headed to the mosque or to their work, children carrying the bread to the communal oven before heading off to school. When I returned there was tea and delightful square "pancakes" which I ate as my travel companions slowly emerged from their rooms. On Intrepid trips rooms are shared, a boon to a solo traveler who does not want to get hit with single supplement payments.

The next morning our taxis took us to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. It was beautiful. This city remained a major city until the 8th century. Although much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century, enough remains or has been excavated to give a sense of the majesty of the city. Storks nest there and there is a photo of that in one of my other blog postings. Our guide thru Volubilis was excellent. I am always amazed, probably because of my own lack of other languages, when someone not only learns another language but can make puns, use idioms well, and discuss complex issues. He gave us the history of a couple of idioms we all use today, and which I cannot at the moment recall. But the idioms related to the ancient Romans and tied in well with our walk through the city.

We rode our taxis to Meknes. Again, a delightful city of narrow streets, bustling markets and a chance to try a camel burger. I will emphasise right now that all the food I had in Morocco was excellent. I loved the spices, not hot but varied and complex, the plentiful use of vegetables and fruits, and the colorful and beautiful presentations. Photos of food are general examples; not necessarily from Meknes.

She is making the thin pastry used for the pancakes, pastille, and other pastries.I watched for awhile and then asked if she minded if I photographed. Often men said yes, but women were less inclined. I was delighted when she gave me a big smile and indicated yes. S

Fes is a densely populated city with a medina which is a confusing warren of narrow alleys, shops selling every conceiveable thing from mobile phones to sticky pastries, shoes, cloth, tools, and fresh meats, fish and produce. I did go with the guide as I am not sure I could have found my way out without her. We visited the tannery, pottery and mosaic cooperative, rug cooperative, and the souks, the streets where stalls are arranged by type of product. One street (actually a narrow alley) may have leather goods, another may be for knife sharpeners, another for metal workers. It was great fun.

Colorful shoes and slippers were everywhere, every city, every town. And yes, I came home with a pair of sandals and a pair of turquoise slipper\shoes.

below are scenes from the Koranic school in Fes.

I was encouraged to step into the doorway of the mosque (below) . Although I could not enter, the entranceway is permitted and people are eager to point out the intricate ceiling of the entrance. Inside people were arriving for prayers. Before praying, washing of face, hands and feet is required. Shoes are never worn in a mosque.

Chefchaouen was my favorite stay in the northern region of Morocco. Its hilly streets, white-washed and blue houses, cobbled streets, the fast running mountain stream runnning through, and its more relaxed pace after Fes was perfect. Our lodgings were way above the fairly basic style of Intrepid. They do not use the large, Euopean or American style hotels. This was not that. It was a small riad, a restored nobleman's house. It was delightful as you will see from the photos.

Thee bedroom Ann and I shared. And doing laundry at the communal wash area.

I did write a blog entry, using Ann's computer. I won't put more on Chefchaouen here. Read that entry. There are additional photos at that spot.
The public bus was late leaving Chefchaouen two and a half days later. That meant we didn't see much of Tangier but that was okay. It could not have compared with Chefchaouen. During the bus ride, I had a chance to talk a great deal with Redouane about Morocco, culture, history, religion, and his own schooling and plans for the future. A special experience.

Our rids in trains, taxis, and buses between cities gave us a look at the countryside. Northern Morocco is blest with water and good growing weather. Citrus groves, olive groves, vegetable farms provide the cities with abundant foods.