Sunday, March 29

Morocco VI: On The Road

Circa. February 11-13, 2020
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Morocco appears to be a place of dueling paradigms. As I’ve written, it’s a highway along which cultures moved each moulding what they’ve found along their way. It’s customs are a gift of its landscape. Today Arab/Muslim totems form a shell that’s kneaded by current and historic European and African ways.

Virtually everything in life is a product of cultures and customs coming from very different places. That tradition appears to have created opportunities for Morocco to drill a hole into barriers to change. Much like Turkey, which has acted as similar bridge for mass migrations, Morocco’s secularized its way of life particularly in its modern cities. 

What happens when two historical cultures collide? 

How much can a tourist learn about Morocco through a bus's window? At rest stops? Lightening tours through road markets or tourist stops? Or quick-walking the streets of a town to leg-stretch? Do we learn or merely clot feelings together into a harebrained heap? I dunno. Let's see.

It's a nine hour bus ride from Erfoud to Ouarzazate back down through the Atlas Mountains and across the cultivated Draa valley. Verdant? In reality, much of Morocco is desert. But snowy peaks collect on mountain tops and then melt to fill some creeks and underground aquifers and there's sufficient rainfall near to the coast to supplement the runoff. 

Millennia ago Moroccans learned how to tap those underground flows, unplugging them with wells and pipes then letting gravity irrigate fields of wheat, olives, dates, spices, nuts, fruits, and tomatoes. Yep, you've noticed in the images so far from this shoot, how similar Morocco looks to the U.S. Southwest, right? 

See Hank Rettew up there in his Clint Eastwood pose? Actually the engineer was studying a deep well whose weathered support-apparatus looks eerily like the ruins of native American workings in Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, or Colorado. How come? Shrouded in prehistoric mist, lies an explanation.

Plate 43

Look at any world map and you'll see how South America fits neatly into the African coast line. Geologists tell us that both the Americas, Europe, and Africa were once joined into a vast Oceania that ripped apart to ride upon plates to their present global positions. Which might mean that Africa's upper western tip nestled neatly into what's now the Gulf of Mexico so that the geologies of the two regions match. Look at the image above. Can you imagine 1950s Western movies  filmed there filled with cowboys, stage coaches, and teepees? 

Similarity of climate and geology have lent to the exploitation of identical building materials - largely adobe rectangles  - which dot both the North American Southwest and the rugged countryside of Morocco. Geologists love Morocco... and so do fossil collectors since much of this area was, as was the U.S. Southwest, undersea during the wanderings of tectonic plates. 

Plate 44

The rugged countryside allows for hard-scrabble subsistence and larger estate farming: Many feeding country markets along the route or selling their handcrafted rugs and jewelry through a valley of hooded men.

Plate 45

Plate 46
Plate 47

Here's where the Sahara inexorably encroaches along the valley's edges. It’s where nomads stop for a while to raise donkeys and some livestock. Does this guy wonder each morning if this sunrise will mean the last of rainfall here on the edge of land's end? Hmmm...

Plate 48

The immense plates continue to shift beneath Moroccan’s feet - quaking down the adobe villages. The waves leave behind eerily empty bands of structures surrounding new, hopefully, sounder construction. These abandoned strips are like rings on a tree marking the times between vicious quakes which reproduced disciplines of scarcity. 

Plate 49

The new walls though are built around memories of ancient Berber and Arab design. As if a lost-wax method was used to pour the new around a mimesis of history or legend. And the core of the matter is always about changing customs. 

Plate 50

For example, notice how the Hotel Rosa is designed around the Moroccan style, yet it lacks any Arabic writing.  Now, look carefully at The Komar Lounge up there. See the signs above each doorway. Intriguing how twin cultures mesh here, yet don’t.  Is there a wall between the two interiors? I guess to the left they eat, drink, dance and be merry.... While on the right they eat and be merry? Morocco's - a place between - whose people have adapted since way before Carthage ruled them.

Plate 51

It's continually restructuring atop the leavings of the past. Here ancient ways meander through modern tag sales.

Plate 52
One thing's clear on every Moroccan street. Customs are a residue of coping, and men are allowed to transition more quickly than women. 

Plate 53

Are there lessons from the other side of a bus's windows?  More likely there are only feelings which we filter through whatever it is we bring to a place.

Coming soon: Morocco VII: Ouarzazate: Africa’s Hollywood

Wednesday, March 25

Morocco V: The Sahara

February 11, 2020
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Plate 30
We bussed through the Atlas Mountains to Erfoud on the upper zag of Morocco’s zig-zaggy western border. It's just east of one of those spots where the country zigs into the world’s mysterious desert. The Sahara’s a big hot rocky and sandy thing… large enough to cover the entire United States with enough left over to spill into Canada, Mexico and both the Pacific and Atlantic. Why is it a desert? Because as the earth wobbles on its axis, Northern Africa varies between a lush, verdant, green, lake-strewn paradise, and the driest desert on earth.

Sahara’s on an eons-old 41,000 year predictable cycle and the current dry period will return to wet and lovely in another 15,000 years… If you want to wait around mark your calendar for 17,000 AD. But before it gets smaller earth’s wobble’s causing the Sahara to get bigger - 10% larger since the 1920s.

Anyway, a lot of it’s under orange/red, sand. So? Well nobody actually knows from where all those very very tiny granules of oddly colored stuff came. There are a trio of guesses and I like number three… Mars! 

Uh-huh - some scientists say all those dunes of stuff are from The Red Planet. Which, is not an American state that votes Republican. Nope, can’t blame the 30% of Africa it covers on Trump :-) Here’s that Mars theory.

Hey, I didn’t say I believe it… but it’s my favorite.

So in Erfoud we squeezed into six Toyota 4X4s that screamed out into the desert. Screamed? It was a rush… The SUVs raced at about 50 mph in a horizontal line churning up thick yellow-red clouds. Like in a Transformer movie. Coooool! Why horizontal? So no one rode in the dust. Why so fast? Cause driving in this sand’s like navigating through deep snow drifts. Stop, or slow in a drift, and the car sinks. In fact, one did… See?

Plate 31

And the other drivers dug out the tires and pushed to regain traction. Finally they got us to an oasis for lunch where we found the last trees on land's end.

Plate 32

And kids, like this pretty youngster, trundled out of nowhere to show their wares.

Plate 33

The coordinators introduced us to our guide (one to a couple) Hsen. And Hsen introduced us to our rides. Look at those beasties. See the handlebars? Uh-huh, you sit on a fat pillow and grasp the handles. It’s surprisingly comfortable and an easier ride than horseback. 

Plate 34

Notice how the base of the bars curve around the hump’s base Well there’s a U-shape metal arc that’s then belted around a camel’s belly. Between the U and camel is a natural cup holder for a water bottle. Neat. My wife Rita and I were tethered together and Hsen led on foot. Which meant that the nose of my ride nuzzled the rear of Rita’s pillow.

Plate 35

Some  vacationing camels free-range around tents like this gal, coming home for meals. On the way they drop… Well, you’ve heard of road-apples right? Camels leave, um, road-malt-balls. Look how efficiently these beasts digest stuff. There’s nothing useful left, and that freshly dropped pellet was almost completely dry. Camels waste no moisture. Yeah they’re perfect for the driest place on earth.

So, our expedition was off…

Plate 36

Led by…

Plate 37

Plate 38

Off to find a high dune and enjoy one of the most astounding sunsets: 

Plate 39

Plate 40

A jewel of the Arab world.

Plate 41

Coming ... Morocco VI - On The Roads sensing the culture.

Friday, March 20

Morocco Images IV - Fez: The Great Medina

February 10, 2020
As always, click upon any image to make it BIG!

Plate 20
The short termer dreams only of profit centers. He confuses conviction with wisdom. But the merchant transcends all of that stuff. He’s as excited by the unique and special things that may not be profitable. His customers shop him through trust. 

Once upon a time, the merchant was much like a monk, he practiced an ancient calling. He didn’t have a job in the sense that he knew how to make money, no, a merchant was someone with a gift for where and what - the specifics of how things fit each need and desire. Much like.a doctor, or a lawyer who designed a regimine to meet specific needs - the merchant was a professional healer of wants.

Imagine with me that you are a merchant trader arriving at the head of your great  train of horses and men at the gates of Fez in say 1163. You are merchant to the courts of Paris, Rome, and London here to meet with your Berber and Arab counterparts who are prepared to display immense wealth of deepest Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and even of the Indian and Chinese. 

Here in Fez was, and still is, the grandest medina in the entire world. 

In Fez they work precious metals and stones, tan leathers, and prepare potions and daggers, display mounds of precious spice, and weave textiles from the world’s finest cloths. These artisans take the raw bronze, golds, silvers and gems to morph them into treasures men and women might die to posses. And have. 

All just through this...

Plate 21
A medina’s the non European part of aged Arab cities. It’s filled with mosques, markets, residences, and all of the other needs of life. It evolved out of walled cities or citadels known as catches and kasbahs. Yeah there are big nuances between all of these names and this is a blog not a textbook, K? Still the largest of them, this one. sits in the center of the second of Morocco’s royal cities: Where its markets still offer treats to someone with the skill to know how to match discoveries to the individual delight of friends, family, and clients.

How large? A guide saiid that there were 900 miles of passages and tunnels worming over, under, and through this vast structure. Some of them are open, others snake about like dim channels - many too tiny for robust people to pass without a duck, dodge, or squeeze between others, walls, or ceiling beams. 

Plate 22
The medina bans motor vehicles, bikes and scooters. Passage corners will narrow farther or gape wide to marvels. So surprising treats lure visitors deeper into this maze.

Plate 23
The thousands of medina dwellers serve one another and traffic from the larger city and world. Triple star restaurants and boutique hotels share space behind the walls with homes whose tenants rarely leave. Why should they?

Plate 24

A stretch of scarcity becomes abundance with foods, shops, and elixirs - novelty everywhere. 

Plate 25

Plate 26

Shiny wealth bursts at a corner’s twist.

Plate 27
And there are jobs right here for resident artisans, craftspeople, artists, metal workers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, engineers, and the force that staffs the tannery that continues technology and methods invented by Romans who built their foundation.

Plate 28
Tannery workers dip hides into the vats filled with a chemical formula that also tracks back to Rome: Liquids laced with urine, feces and other stinking mixtures. Visitors are handed lemon tree sprigs to wave beneath their noses to cut a stench thick enough to slash with a Fez dagger.

Rumors stick thickly here, like fables of Holland’s traders who imported tales of this mysterious place: Which triggered their artists to visit and steal this medina’s palette into the shadowy canvases of the Dutch Masters .

Plate 29

Coming: Morocco V: Into The Sahara

Monday, March 16

Morocco Images III - Volubilis

February 8, 2020
As always, click upon any image to make it BIG!

Between the royal cities of Rabat and Fez there's a spot... A dig into the shadow of the ancient ways beneath Morocco's dirt. They've drilled sort of a manhole... Oops... person hole...  down into the historic foundation of this causeway nation... This bridge which untold millions have crossed between the European and African continents. Okay, historians make the past as unpredictable as the future. It's what they do. Still, here's a spot where Morocco's shoveling into all of our histories.

Our Moroccan Expedition was gamely produced by Gib Armstrong who hauled us both ways
storing us neatly into the buses, planes, and hotels that make touring bearable.
Plate 11

Once upon a time the swath of North Africa framing the Mediterranean Sea was Rome's breadbasket. It was the richest verdant strip of land known to the history of their moment. From the prosperous town of Volubilis in what's now Morocco to the fat and burgeoning Egyptian capitol of Memphis at the mouth of the Nile basin, African farmers fed the vast empire's belly with fruit, olives, wine, meat, and grain in astonishing quantities. They also bred the "wild" animals for Roman colosseums throughout the empire. It was a never-again rivaled regional miracle of cultural, military, political, and agrarian engineering.

Arriving around 45 AD here between the Khoumane river and a shallow verdant slope of Zerhoun mountain, Rome's legions muscled into a sleepy Berber, Mauretanian, Amazigh, and Carthaginian village. They stayed in this place, renamed Volubilis, until either those legions lost their muscle or feisty locals regrew their own in the year 285.

Detail of Volubilis' Trimuphal Arch
Plate 12
Dark ages crushed the town that once housed 20,000 prosperous Romans. They stripped its marble-coated buildings, even crushing the underground piping that carried water to structures, much of it heated to generate radiant warmth beneath floors in cold nights and wintery days. Gone too was the system of sewers that drained the city's refuse. Over the centuries vandals, clerics, and politicians quarried the structures of shiny skins, stones, and bricks to make their own public buildings, mosques and churches, leaving naked bones like that detail above of Volubilis' once grand arch.

Plate 13

But still locals lived in the ancient homes and tread the old village stairs.

Plate 14

For centuries the new Christian religion and later the Muslims worshiped within Roman public buildings they converted into churches then mosques.

Frank & Barbara Pinto pose midst the vast public building
its columns now supporting nests of great white cranes.
Plate 15

Plate 16

The might of Rome still whispers... no shouts is a better word... Yeah, Roman architects and builders routinely created massive works without power tools, elevators, or bulldozer brawn. 

They used a lot of labor, but remember this city had only 20,000 people (including slaves), about the population of  Columbia in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania --  perhaps even fewer . And most of those were there to engage in or support farming. How'd they do that? How did they cloth, feed, house, and support such a large percentage of craftspeople who were not contributing to the productivity which brought wealth from trade to this village?

The mosaic floors of the Volubilis mansions and public buildings showed a rich depth of
highly skilled artisans were available to feed the town's ambitions.
Plate 17
A microcosm of Roman glory, this tiny place off on the western edge of Rome's African empire stood until a massive 1750s Portuguese earthquake some 500 miles to its north jolted everything down. It leveled the last, mostly abandoned, buildings and left it forgotten until the 1920s when French archeologists began its rediscovery. 

Plate 18

The Kingdom of Morocco continues to piece the ancient puzzle-place back together. They're repiling the rocks to remind visitors of ghosts lurking in memory's mists. People who managed to somehow stave off the darkness from 45 till 285AD. Dreamers who reached from this tiny place to the spectacular metropolises of the Nile to create a sparkling necklace of farming wealth that dangled about Rome's southern neck. 

Plate 19

What's left of the children's screams, barking dogs, hard men in sun-bleached tunics? Where's the stench of horse and donkey traffic lugging rackety carts along the arrow-straight Decumanus Maximus the great avenue connecting the city's main gate with and through this once magnificent arch? Squint into the dazzling African sun and that rock pile becomes different... an abstract... a painter's feeling of...

The writer J.P. Hartley said, "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there."

And there's that person-hole through the arch's center back to where ancients might still do things differently. 

Coming Next: Moroccan Images IV - The mysterious royal city of Fez.

Wednesday, March 11

Morocco Images 2020 - Rabat II (Fixed)

February 7, 2020

Rabat and its country are ancient with even its modern North African roots sunk deeply into the Middle Ages. Unsurprisingly then, Morocco's culture is steeped in tradition and traditional roles.

As always, click upon any image to make it BIG!
Plate 5

Ramparts mingle with the ruins of Rome then medieval Europe. Cultural traditions confront secular influences muscling from just North of the country across the Gibraltar Straights. Consequently this centrally hierarchical system  depends upon a need for gatekeepers and tastemakers

Plate 6

 Rabat is a port city and a vacation playground for Western Europe. So the wealthy 'foreigner' mingles ideas and feelings with the swirl of inherited Berber and Arab traditions. 

Plate 7
The guy below? He's a 'Water Man' whose traditional career's been handed down through his family. Career? Uh-huh. In Morocco it's illegal to charge for water. But a guild of men delivered the liquid and are still paid for their service. I'm guessing though that his pay in tips for photographic modeling overwhelms water deliveries in a modern city that's got a sophisticated water treatment and piping system. 

Plate 8

As both the nation's capital and one of its four royal cities, Rabat houses the nation's king and court when they visit. Each of Morocco's four Royal cities hosts a palace housing hundreds of family retainers. All of their inhabitants maintain an inherited job. The nation's constitution provides for an elected parliament but the King still commands this nation's military. Representatives of each of the armed forces in dress uniform stand duty daily in defense of king and retinue. The appeal of tradition is useful to sustain the system in power. 

Plate 9

A force that also stands ceremonial duty at tombs of past Kings and historic sites. Tradition's been called 'the tyranny of the dead'.

Plate 10

Unsurprisingly then, the tombs of revered past king's of Morocco are defended by a Royal Guard who seem somehow angelic in their ritualistic presence.

Next,Morocco II: on the road between Rabat and the Royal City of Fez: a stop at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis - soon. Stay tuned.