Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Complex Labyrinth

Now that I have returned to the United States, I feel as if I am emerging from one month of wandering through a complex labyrinth. I seldom felt as though I walked in a straight line, but rather meandered, lost in wonderment, through a maze of experiences that curved, twisted and bent through cities, fields, mountains, deserts and oceans, among people who spoke languages I could not understand, sleeping in many different beds in various exotic abodes, eating unusual foods and learning to live where the sunrise is eight hours earlier.

While in the labyrinth, I did not feel particularly lost, even when I was sometimes traveling in the “wrong” direction, because I believe in THE DREAM, where everything has a purpose, even being lost. In Paris, the maze of tunnels under the city that carry the millions of subway passengers can be daunting, especially if one does not speak French, but being lost can have it’s pleasures. On the streets, I walked miles over the cobblestone avenues amid row after row of shops, café’s and hotels. An air of sophistication permeated everywhere, as if Paris was the seat of refinement for the world. In the Louvre Museum, I walked for hours over the marble floors, admiring some of the best artwork in the world . . . and also found myself in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, wandering amid the tombs of some the same great artists whose work is in the Louvre.

Morocco held many firsts for me: Drinking fresh squeezed orange juice every day for three weeks, seeing a snake charmer handling a live cobra, riding a camel and sleeping in a Bedouin tent under a full moon, being in a sandstorm, using a toilet and rinsing my butt with my hand dipped in a bucket of water used for that purpose, hearing the Muslim call to prayer blasted from loudspeakers at mosques every day for three weeks, eating olives at every meal, wearing a caftan and eye liner, seeing a woman go bathing in the ocean while fully dressed, including head scarf, (a wave knocked her down and she smiled at me with the same look of wonderment and glee as anyone would), pouring rose water in my eyes and also drinking it, seeing a herd of goats grazing in a tree while balanced on its branches, walking through a tannery, among the hides of animals being treated in smelly vats of pigeon excrement, looking west over the Atlantic ocean to see the sun set, drinking mint tea five times a day, being in a country where marijuana and hashish is legal but guns and alcohol are not. The medina’s, the souks and mosques, endless flocks of sheep and goats over the countryside, sometimes tended by children, fields plowed with horses, women covered from top to bottom with clothing to show Islamic modesty and discretion even while working in fields, fresh fruit and vegetables in every market, the call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers five times a day, even in the smallest of villages. . . all the myriad sounds, sights, smells and sensations contributed to make me astonished and surprised at every turn.

In Spain, when I visited Antonio Gaudi’s (1852–1926) Sagrada Familia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was sure the cranes would be gone from my previous visit, three years earlier, but they are not . . . it has been a work in progress since 1882 and is not expected to be finished until 2041.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


THE DREAM has a life of it’s own. I may have plans but if I am fluid in THE DREAM, sudden shifts occur and I must go along. I had planned to leave Merzouga and drive north to Chefchaouen, a town famous for it’s mountain setting and dwellings painted blue. As I was preparing to leave town I talked with my friend Ali and told him that with my remaining week, I also wanted to visit ocean beaches and arrive at Casablanca to depart Morocco. He suggested that I could go to Asilah on the coast, where the buildings are decorated in blue. This is how THE DREAM took me to Asilah.

The drive took a full day and one night. When I arrived at last, I actually drove past the town and when I turned around, the place looked rather non-descript. I inquired at a couple hotels, but they cost 400 Moroccan dirham, more than I wanted to pay and I was not satisfied. As I drove slowly in the streets near the ocean, I spoke a prayer to Naomi who I had been feeling near me, and it was as if someone else took hold of the steering wheel and pulled the car up in front of Hotel Zelis. The front desk manager showed me a spotless room with a balcony overlooking the Atlantic and told me the price was 300 dirham and included breakfast. Furthermore, the room number was 308, which immediately confirmed the whole deal. (See my blog about eleven’s).

Asilah has a sweet medina that gives the town its character. Each day I went there often, passing through one of the Báb’s (Báb means gate) in the walled area, to browse and photograph the whitewashed and brightly colored walls that were sometimes painted with artwork left over from an annual art festival.

THE DREAM delivered me to several characters, including Adnan, who worked in a small art gallery and was fluent in English and traded philosophies with me, especially about Islam and cultural differences between the occident and Arab countries. He said freedom is illusion and simply to have his religion is enough to be free. I took issue with Arab countries lack of tolerance for other beliefs and he said yes, but other beliefs might influence the young people away from Islam.

I also met street musicians, and Abdul, an itinerate naïve artist who pounced on tourists in the Medina, and spoke passable English. And the last evening, as I sat at a table at a sidewalk café, Hassan, a thin young man dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans approached to sell me coral necklaces he had made. I did not want to buy his necklace, but offered to buy him something to eat. He sat down and ordered a coffee. He spoke good English and said he had trained to be a chef, but could not find work. Our conversation turned philosophical and we talked about speaking good words to people and he said it is taught in the Koran. Abdul wandered by and I gave him a piece of my pizza and he said, “next time I will be the one sitting with you.” Some children came to beg for my pizza and I gave them some. At the end of dinner, Hassan again asked me to buy something and explained he lived with his parents, took care of some siblings, and also had a bad toothache but did not have enough money for the dentist. I have been hassled so often to buy things in Morocco, so I asked him how much he needed for the dentist. He said 45 dirham, and I offered to give it to him. But I only had a 100 dirham note. He told me to give it to him and we will go get change. We walked and he began taking me past shops and into alleys. I stayed beside him and continued talking but grew wary. I told him how often I had been approached for money and explained that sure, if I were king I would help everyone. (In fact, I have not sold a painting in two months and have been living on savings.) He said just thinking like this is a blessing, and it is taught in the Koran. We reached a corner and he pointed me which direction to go to my hotel, then pointed in the opposite direction and said he would go now for change, and took off running. After he disappeared, I waited a few minutes, since I had built trust with him, but realized he was not coming back, and I wandered through the dark to my hotel. I felt a little sadness, but no anger. I thought that he must have really needed the money, and he was probably praying for me to make up for my loss. Anyway, this is what THE DREAM had delivered that evening.

Before leaving the hotel in Asilah, I asked about a couple places along the coast and was told to go to Mouley Bousselham, known for its beach and nearby bird sanctuary. I arrived there from the highway and drove toward the ocean, looking for a hotel. The commercial district was only a couple of shops, and the hotel I looked at was claustrophobic and grimy. I got back in the car and drove slowly into a neighborhood on a bluff along the coast. I felt a reverie and again as if someone else was driving the car, pulled over. I went into a tiny convenience shop in the middle of the block of residences. The old man did not speak English, but I managed to make him understand “hotel”. He took me by the hand and went next door, calling out to someone inside. A young man named Abdul arrived who spoke English and said I could stay there. He showed me a clean, comfortable room and said breakfast was included. I noticed that the home had a placard on the wall out front that said Casa Nora. The rate was 300 dirham, and I could pay more for dinner. If there were a number on my bedroom door it would be 11.

The house looks out over the ocean where I swim everyday. The dinner preparation and service is far more than I expected. (See my pictures on Facebook.) I have become friends with the owner, Mohammed, who speaks English and has taken me to the wildlife refuge lake to show another house that is being finished into a guest lodge for the many bird watchers who come during the year. The trip over a bumpy road was worth it just to see the craftsmen, who were painstakingly putting intricate patterns of tiles together throughout the home. When it is finished, he wants me to return and stay to paint my art. He confided that he has always wanted a bedroom full of art depicting belly dancers. I told him I may be back, but I am not sure because I am like the wind and do not know where it will blow across the world next. On the way home he took me to a bustling fish market.
Eels at the fish market in Larache

In two days I depart Morocco and arrive in Barcelona, Spain for a few days before returning to the USA. I have some wonderful photos to work with, and a boatload of adventures to write about.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Erg Chebbi

Children love playing in sand, whether it is on the banks of a river, on a beach, in a sand box, or simply heaped in a pile at a construction site. I spent many hours as a child playing with my friends in sand, creating tunnels, and castles with moats. Now I am at Erg Chebbi, a very big pile of sand at Merzouga, Morocco, in the Sahara desert.

When I met Said, (pronounced Sah-eeed), my young Berber guide who was waiting for me with a camel, we smiled at each other and clasped hands. He has the fair skin of many Berber people, and slightly rosy cheeks, and was dressed in a flowing royal blue caftan and a black scarf wrapped around his head. In a minute, Said helped me onto the camel and we began trekking into the red ochre colored sand dunes. He led the beast with a tether that was attached to a ring in one nostril. I wore a black caftan over blue jeans, and a white scarf wrapped around my head. My eyes were highlighted with black pigment, using a traditional technique that keeps off the sun’s reflections. Many men do this, and I find it helps ward off harsh sunlight. It stings when it goes on, but lasts for days.

A short distance and we were ambling across the dunes past the carcass of a dead camel. I took a picture as Said gazed behind us at the clouds in the sky and then said, “The wind is coming.” A short while later, gusts began kicking the sand up all around us. We met up with another Berber leading a man and woman on camels. Said asked me if we could walk in a “caravan.” All the camels were tied single file and the two Berber friends walked in front, chatting amiably.

I had been snapping pictures but now the wind had intensified and I was concerned that my camera would get sand blasted like everything else. I imagined the old movies where a sand storm in the desert stops everything and travelers hunker down behind their resting camels, hoping not to be buried alive. I wanted to gaze at the scenery but could only look away from the direction of the wind that was throwing sand at me. We continued trekking onward until we found a tent site. The couple stopped first, and to get more privacy, we continued further to a camp at the base of gigantic dune and an old, weather-beaten, toothless man greeted us with laughter and a smile. The three of us were the only ones there.

The tents are small, just bamboo sticks covered with burlap. Inside is only enough room to sit and sleep, but not stand. When the fabric wears away, another is thrown over it. The wind comes through and sand gets in everywhere. Said, the old man, and I sat in the dark hovel, and Said made dinner over a burner. We joked, and talked about my travels and how long it would take to get by camel to Timbuktu—about sixty days. After dinner the wind had calmed and the old man went outside to lie in the sand under the full moon, while Said and I went to a vacant tent and played Berber drums. He sang as he played and I carried a beat alongside. He sang in Berber and Arabic, with a little broken English thrown in. When I heard, “If your happy and you know it”, I sang along and helped him learn the song (song link here). The refrain changes to anything you want, like, “if your happy and you know it clap your hands . . . if your happy and you know it laugh out loud” etc. We banged the drums, sang and laughed until we were worn out.

I chose to sleep outside, under the stars. The full moon kept me up, and because sound travels farther and easier in the desert night, other drumming from camps reached my ears. When the wind picked up and I felt a drop of rain, I went into the tent and brushed sand away from the sleeping rolls, got as comfortable as possible and fell asleep.

Before dawn, Said called into the tent “Hey American, wake up.” To my dismay, it was windy again, and a light rain fell. I dressed and went out. Said had disappeared and I began walking over the dunes, determined to take pictures anyway, with little hope for a classic sunrise shot. In a short while, the camp was out of sight, and I was wet and chilled from the wind. My eyes stung from sand, so I made my way back to the tent where Said had breakfast ready.

On the trek back, the sand was firm from the rain, and within an hour the sun was trying to come out as I cast off the wool blanket. I dismounted and ran alongside the camel and Said, taking pictures. We joked that the camel was the famous movie star, Omar Shariff and as we trudged onward, sang, “If your happy and you know it.” We joked about the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his famous “Zenga, Zenga!” statement, and added that to the song; If your happy and you know it say, Zenga Zenga!

When we arrived back to our starting place we were like brothers and promised to stay in touch, and be friends on Facebook.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Primitive Profusion

Now that I am alone in Morocco, I am moving in any direction without restraint. This morning I left Fez to travel south to Merzouga, a famous village on the edge of some great Sahara sand dunes. Before leaving Fez, I looked at a map that indicated a long day’s drive, and thought about stopping along the way. I saw a town called Midelt that interested me, but a travel guide said it was not much of an attraction, and someone advised me to go to Erfoud instead, a tourist town closer to Merzouga.

About an hour south of Fez the countryside became verdant among rolling hills. I tried to make good time and drive at the speed limit along a narrow two-lane highway. The road curved and suddenly I passed a spectacular meadow. In a second, I had to decide either to stay to my schedule and hurry to arrive at my destination before night, or hit the brakes. The poppies in the field made me stop and pull over. There was not a fence, just a steep embankment. I had sandals and shorts on, and stepping over the rocks, I was met by thorny plants and brambles. But the color called me, and no one was around. I only heard a donkey braying in the distance.

I am glad I made the choice to stop and wander in the abandoned farm field covered in poppies and wildflowers. A brook passed through and a small olive orchard stood nearby. The primitive profusion of nature was a kaleidoscope for my enchanted eyes, and I thought how my schedule was of no importance—moreover beauty can be fleeting and memories forever. My feet were cut, but the blood reminded me of the red poppies.

I eventually arrived at Midelt, a scruffy berber town on the route between destinations. Slowing for traffic near a roundabout, a young man ran up to my car and said “Where are you going?” I answered, “Merzouga” and he spoke in English that he had just come from the USA and would I please visit with him. After a short conversation, I decided to stop for the night. He set me up with a clean, comfortable room and breakfast for less than twenty dollars, took me to a local once-weekly souk (market), and then went touring with me into the hillsides. Kassem is a rug trader and goes for three-month treks with camels, visiting berber villages and trading for rugs. I asked him if he had been a goat herder as a child, since I see so many boys doing this along the roads. He said yes, and as I guessed, the sheepherders walk for days with the animals, sleeping on the ground.
At the souk.

In the morning I am going to visit a Kasbah nearby where 120 families reside within the earth walls, then continue to the desert, where a friend of Kassem’s will be waiting for me and will take me by camel into the desert.

This is THE DREAM, and the more I let go into it, the more fantastic is the journey.

Monday, May 09, 2011


While still in Paris, the night before leaving, a dreamy transport came over me and a rhapsodic tingling flowed from my feet to my head—and I knew. The certainty came as a surprise because a bomb had recently blasted through the medina in Marrakech, killing tourists. So my spiritual confirmation that I would love Morocco came as relief beforehand.

Heidi of the Mountains and I arrived to the airport in Marrakech, rented our car and set off to find our riad, (hotel in a former home). I am a more experienced traveler and have been to several African countries, including Egypt (see Steven Boone Photos from Around The World), so the dusty, crowded and derelict streets did not startle me, but for my companion, having just come from sophisticated Paris, the scenery was a surprise for her eyes and maybe a bit of a shock. Before long, as we looked about for Riad Nesma, trying to discern where our riad might be, a man on a motorcycle sped up along side our car and speaking in English, asked if we needed help. He directed us to a car park and from there helped us to hire a fellow with a big wheelbarrow to carry our luggage down a narrow street to our hotel. Once we were situated, Abdel stuck to us like glue, offering to take us places. I asked him how much and he said, “No worry, just pay me what you like, and if you don’t like me, do not pay anything.” This was our introduction to Morocco.

The colors, sights and sounds are fantastic. The souks (markets), in Marrakech are a virtual smorgasbord of brightly colored shoes, textiles, sacks of spices, earthenware, aromatic tinctures and creams, mints and foods, decorated furniture and artwork. Nothing is behind glass, rather it is within touch and ready to be handled. Merchants greet you with a smile and are ready to bargain. They are expert at selling, and even though you get something for half price, later you might regret that you paid too much.
This Berber Woman is over ninety years old!
From Marrakech we drove to El Kelaa M’Gouna, a town in “the valley of roses” in the Atlas Mountains. It is an area famous for producing rose water and perfumes. Each year, the first weekend in May, is the Festival of Roses. We have arrived just in time, but the trip from Marrakech took twice as long as I anticipated, especially because of the slow driving along twisting roads over the mountains. Our hotel, called Dar Timitar is owned by two brothers, Ahmed (pronounced Ak-med) and Rachid (Rah-sheed), and sits in a spectacular situation atop a mountain, overlooking the valley and villages below.

Most tourists in Morocco are French, since it is a former colony and French is widely spoken. Ahmed speaks French and Rachid speaks English. They are both hardworking and kind. Rachid becomes our guide for the next three days and we quickly bond as he takes us hiking through fields of roses, over gurgling brooks, among walnut, almond and peach trees, through fields of wheat and barley, and into the Berber villages made of earth. He is a devout Muslim, as are most everyone, and is expert at explaining the Berber culture and traditions. The leisurely walks are wonderful, especially since the roses perfume the air while birds add their songs to the sounds of the water flowing in ditches.

Life is simple and often we see women in the morning and evenings, returning from the fields, bent over, carrying piles of fresh cut alfalfa to feed their animals. Children play, and old men sit by the roadside and daydream. When I meet other men, they tap their heart, shake my hand and say “Salaam”, which means peace is with us.

Today we leave the mountains and begin driving to the sea. Our next stop is the coastal town of Essaouira.

Note: Have arrived in Essaouira after a day of driving. It is a fantastic city on the coast that reminds me of Venice, Italy. Within the walled old town where no cars are allowed, are mazes of narrow walks lined with shops similar to those in Marrakech.  Our room is in Riad Mimouna, built at the ocean edge and the windows open to the west upon the Atlantic sea.
 The Medina of Essaouira is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed city.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Bewildering Beauty of Paris

There is never any ending to Paris, and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. Paris was always worth it, and you received return for whatever you brought to it… Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast

To inhale Paris preserves the soul.

Victor Hugo

Paris, France is considered by many to be the most romantic city in the world. Whenever I am here I often see couples stopping to kiss.  On the Pont des Arts Bridge by the Louvre Museum are thousands of love padlocks with the lovers names written on them and locked to the guardrails—the keys tossed away into the Seine River flowing underneath. And this is what Paris does—it fills the soul with intimacy and romance so that you want to throw your life into what Allen Ginsburg calls, “…the bewildering beauty of Paris.”

I am here with Heidi of the Mountains for five days before heading to Morocco. It is my fifth visit to this storied city and so I know the neighborhood of the Latin Quarter where I typically stay. The springtime brings people outdoors, so streets are crowded. To stroll is to smell expensive perfumes, see stylish dress, hear many languages, see wonderment in people’s eyes, and now when the temperature is perfect, see street performers with their song and dance. Occasionally one can stop and listen to the distinctive notes of an accordion player sitting on the curb playing tunes of bygone years, tin cup at his feet.

At the Louvre Museum, as usual, a crush of people ten deep are always crammed in front of the Mona Lisa. I get as much pleasure studying an exquisite early self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, (German, 21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528)—and I do not have to peer over any shoulders.

Yesterday we hiked many miles. From our hotel we walked over the Seine River to the Louvre, strolled into the Jardin Des Tulleries (gardens), continued to the Grand Palais and then followed the paths beside the Seine River to the Eiffel Tower. After four hours, we arrived back to the hotel. Within an hour we were back on the street, taking the Metro Subway to one of my favorite places—the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery. I have been there several times and could easily spend days photographing among the graves, mausoleums and sepulchers. Among the famous people buried are Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaff, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, and perhaps the most visited grave—Jim Morrison, formerly the lead singer for the Doors.
We were so entranced meandering among the graves that when the bells sounded at closing time we barely noticed. Later, Heidi noticed nobody around us and said "I hope we are not closed in here." I laughed and joked that I would choose which mausoleum to sleep in and she could choose hers. She did not find it funny. In fact, when we arrived at the gate it was locked and we guessed that we might not get out. After a slight panic, we eventually found a guard who stared at us with a disgruntled look and shoved us through a gate onto the street.
On the way back we got lost in the subway and took some wrong trains. But it is not so bad—being lost in Paris.

Heidi of the Mountains is full of wonder, and commented that seeing the grandness all around “sure beats looking at adobe walls.” She wants to stay longer but our course is set, so we go to Morocco tomorrow.

A few days ago a terrorist attack occurred in Marrakech and that is where we go first. Now that the USA killed Osama Bin Laden, I do not know what repercussions may occur. But to live in fear is something impossible for me. It is what terrorists want and we must not give them what they are after. I think that the good people of Morocco will be especially grateful for our arrival.
See my other Paris journals from previous visits: This is ParisCinderellaTravel Along The River Of Life