Tulum

Cenote :: Mexico

Cenote :: Mexico

We’ve been here for one month visiting friends, working remotely and relaxing in Tulum, Mexico after leaving Vancouver, Canada. Many have asked what we’re doing and we don’t have an immediate answer to that question. We’ve embarked on a nomadic lifestyle, at least for now. We’ll see how long it lasts based on budget, desire and knocks on the door from my husband’s world of film and visual effects. We came here for tropical heat, cheap tacos and a slower pace of life. We’ve found all of that plus a few adventures, some big surprises and an alluring dose of Mayan history.

We’ve been staying in a great apartment on the edge of town, which also happens to be a 20-minute bike ride from the Tulum ruins. I’ve been to the ruins once before — about 15 years ago — but that was long before history and culture really began to make my heart beat. Being here again, in the context of the Yucatán Peninsula, has been given me a new awareness of the richness and depth of culture in this region. The highlights of spending time here have included watching the Travesia Sagrada, and learning about the vast network of caves and cenotes below the surface of Tulum and its neighboring towns.

The Travesia Sagrada honors a historic journey from centuries ago. Mayans traveled by canoe (departing north of Tulum) to the sacred island of Cozumel and its temple honoring Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. The pilgrimage was important for women hoping to have children and men praying for a good harvest.

Nowadays, about 300 men and women in 30 canoes row to Cozumel and return the following morning. In the process of learning about the Travesia Sagrada through a friend who participated, I’ve also learned about temescals (sweat lodges) and a Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa who single-handedly did more than anyone else to both record and destroy Mayan culture. It was de Landa who documented the travesia in the 1500s, but it was also de Landa who burned essential Mayan manuscripts and images out of his religious intolerance.

As for the caves and cenotes here, they may be Tulum’s most enjoyable secret, although they’re not really a secret. Many people know of them but they aren’t too overcrowded. Yet. Typically, a cenote is a large hole in the ground that leads to a larger hole filled with fresh water draining to the ocean. Most cenotes are very deep (in some, you can’t see the bottom) and often connected to other cenotes by caves and channels.

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

Cenote Labnaha :: Tulum, Mexico

If you’re an adventure scuba diver, cenotes are a unique paradise. If you’re not comfortable in the water, you will hate cenotes. They can be very dangerous if you’re inexperienced, unprepared or your equipment fails (which Jay was witness to at a cenote/lagoon south of Tulum). We explored Cenote Labnaha with a guide, which was both fascinating and freaky. For one hour we snorkeled through low caves, dodged stalactites, looked down at the scuba ropes leading into even deeper caves, and turned off our flashlights to 15 seconds of complete and terrifying darkness.

Cenotes played a part in Mayan history as a place of worship and sacrificial offerings. The Tulum ruins include a “House of the Cenote” and at Ek Balam there’s a cenote visible from the La Acrópolis. Our next door neighbor, who we call the Jacques Cousteau of the Yucatán, has been exploring and mapping Tulum’s network of caves and cenotes for the past two decades. He’s found artifacts and human remains in several.

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Sargasso :: Tulum, Mexico

Tulum itself is a gritty little town with upscale construction threatening its charm at every turn in the road. It’s straddling an impossible line between retaining its character and leveraging the considerable foreign interest it holds as a seaside destination not far from Cancún. A bigger, pressing issue may be global warming. The coastline here is showing signs of the battle — not against trash, but against a super-bloom of sargasso macroalgae that is relentlessly dumping ashore in a rotting brown mass (pictured above). No one can keep up with it and hardly anyone is hanging out at the beach as a result. In addition, Mexico’s elections are just a couple weeks away and running for office here can be a life-threatening pursuit. This is a country battling many forces against it, including its neighbor to the north.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Beneath all of this patina, the history here shines brightly. The region is punctuated by the magnificent temples of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam and Cobá, and countless smaller sites cover the peninsula. It would take weeks — if not months — to see them all. Yet it feels like layers and layers remain to be discovered in the crumbling limestone and tropical vegetation.

The Tulum ruins stand alone as a unique coastal site — the only one in Mayan history — and old port for the city of Cobá. Originally called Zamá (dawn or sunrise), the site of Tulum flourished from 1200-1500 AD, and declined in the 75 years after the Spanish made first contact in the early 1500s.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 people lived at Tulum. Based on the wall with four small doorways protecting the ruins, people living within the site may have been of a higher social class than people living outside the wall.

El Castillo (The Castle) sits at the cliff edge overlooking the ocean. Surely the view is spectacular from it’s highest level although you’re not allowed to climb the steps. Standing alongside the east wall facing the sea, it dominates and feels fortified against the weather with its battered construction. But the articulation of the stone ledges and borders adds delicate beauty. Whoever designed the castle and surrounding structures had an evident appreciation of design and proportion.

The Descending God

The Descending God

The Descending God, a notable deity of the Yucatán peninsula, is portrayed at the Tulum Ruins. This figure holds a characteristic pose — inverted, with feet at the top and face at the bottom looking forward. The Descending God is associated with bees and war, and interesting combination. Honey was a vital export of the region and war was a way of attaining power. You can read more about the Descending God here.

The Temple of the Frescoes holds weathered depictions of deities above the colonnade. Even a bit of color remains from the natural pigments (achiote, chochineal and palygorskite or Maya Blue among them) that once painted the sites of this region but have since washed away. What I find most striking about Mayan art is that it so closely resembles the style of indigenous art throughout western Canada. The depictions of gods and animals in both regions share a highly graphic quality of thick lines, robust shapes and bold expressions. Is it coincidence or relation?

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

I see you :: Tulum Ruins

 

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Tulum Ruins :: Mexico

Walking around the rest of the site, all of the structural remains have simple rectangular footprints with finished-floor elevations above ground level. Could the varied floor heights have indicated status even within the social hierarchy of the select people living here? Could this detail have helped keep the bugs and reptiles out — of which there are many! Or the rain? Did the added elevation simply keep the floor dry? It has rained in solid sheets over the past few days so this had to have been a concern at such an exposed site bordering the ocean.

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Grand Palace :: Tulum Ruins, Mexico

There are so many unanswerable questions, lost to the forgetfulness of time. Even I have questions related to my own life that have surfaced while being here. When I was a kid — four or five years old — I had two imaginary friends for a period of time. I have no recollection of how I conjured them up. I only remember their unusual names: Chaka and Cobba (as I spelled them). Since coming here, I’ve learned two interesting names that correlate: Chaahk, the Mayan god of rain and Cobá, the historic Mayan city that once dominated the region.

Have I lived here before? Is it coincidence or memory?

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Miscellaneous

Finding the Unicorn of the Sky

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

The cabin :: Whitehorse, Canada

Last March, we decided it was time to pack up and leave Vancouver — such is the life of opportunists and world travelers always looking ahead to the next stop. But before we left we were surprised with one late-season, last-minute opportunity to see the Northern Lights — a big item yet to be checked off our bucket lists. Forecasts predicted the Lights would be active over the coming weekend due to a coronal hole and resulting solar wind entering earth’s atmosphere. Yay, science!

We did what any ardent Northern Lights chasers would do: we booked a last-minute flight and a tiny remote cabin in the Yukon Territory. Two days later, we were fastening our seat belts for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere, in search of the Unicorn of the Sky (Jay’s name for the Northern Lights).

“Nowhere” doesn’t do it justice. The flight to Whitehorse was full of spectacular mountain views and the town itself is pretty cool. Whitehorse has managed to hang onto some of it’s vintage charm, blended with indigenous art and a new community center, interspersed with a few little shops and cafes.

The best thing about the weekend was our one-bedroom cabin on the 80-acre ranch of a Renaissance outdoorsman. He milled the wood and built the cabin himself with a fantastic front porch and firepit facing directly north to the horizon where we hoped to see the elusive green glow of the Aurora. The cabin had no running water but the luxurious outhouse was far better than some bathrooms, and the efficient heat and fast WiFi made the whole outpost perfect for our weekend camp. Located 45 minutes outside Whitehorse, the sky was plenty dark for our adventure in light.

Whitehorse, Canada

Whitehorse, Canada

On the afternoon we arrived, we explored the vicinity of our cabin and discovered other myriad things the Renaissance outdoorsman had built including a handful of additional cabins, an enormous solar array to power the site, and the “Boyleville Saloon” just beyond his backyard (closed for the season, but probably host to some really fun parties).

To the east of his home, he had a large yard and housing for a team of 30 sled dogs, and his wife tipped us off that he’d be taking some of them out for an “afternoon run” around 4:30 p.m. (Fun fact: You probably don’t know this, but I wrote the introduction to a sold-out coffee table book about Iditarod sled dogs called Born To Run by Albert Lewis.) Seeing these dogs here in person, from behind the fence (they are VERY enthusiastic creatures), was an unexpected treat.

All hooked up and harnessed to run, OFF THEY WENT barking madly and racing for the hills. They didn’t return until 50 kilometers and one frozen river crossing later, in full darkness at 10:00 p.m. that evening.

That same evening was the first time we saw the Northern Lights. I was using three websites to track the activity. The Lights had been extremely active over Scandanavia but by the time they reached western Canada, they had calmed to a sleepy Level 2 — nothing too special, but still a fuzzy green glow above the distant mountains to the north of us along with a blob of light above us that was so subtle I mistook it for a cloud until I realized it was shifting in all directions. We ducked in and out of the cabin until 3:00 a.m. that morning, checking to see if the Lights were becoming more active. The forecast predicted better activity during the following two evenings so eventually we gave in and slept.

The next day, we took a walk around the property to a bluff near the cabin. We could see all the way to the next mountains with a flat expanse of land in between and a few stands of trees like ribbons running north to south. With the lingering snow, branches not yet budding for spring, and the frozen Yukon River in the distance, the sparse landscape had the look and feel of The Revenant — minus the grizzly bear (hopefully sleeping).

That night, Jay succumbed to the primal need to make fire in the wilderness and built a glowing pyramid in the firepit out front. We alternated between the warm cabin and the fireside heat until the wood ran out around 9:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., Jay took a look out the front door exclaiming, “The band’s here!” That ethereal green band was getting brighter as darkness finally arrived. But Aurora activity again remained low and steady throughout our gaze until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. It was easy to see and enjoy with our eyes but not so easy to photograph with a camera.

On Sunday, our last full day in Whitehorse, we made the most of it. We drove out to walk on the frozen Yukon River and then went for an evening soak in the local hot springs — a community gathering spot with two large pools at different temperatures.

We returned to the cabin and checked the Aurora forecasts, knowing the conditions were right for increased activity. A coronal hole in the sun was releasing solar wind that was striking the atmosphere with high-level intensity as the earth rotated through it. Activity had again been elevated over Scandanavia but tonight it had continued over eastern Canada, too. We knew that if we were lucky we might catch the tail end of the show.

We were drinking wine, making dinner, waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear from the western sky. And then … it happened. The band’s here! Brighter and greener than ever. GET THE CAMERA!

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

First attempt at shooting the Northern Lights

I was excited, frantic, running around trying to get my camera attached to the cold tripod I had staged on the front porch. Jay was turning off all the lights and, with less and less light to work with, my camera wouldn’t focus on anything. I switched to manual but the scene was so dark through the viewfinder and I was so filled with glee that both IT and I could not focus. FAIL. More attempts, more failures, but pretty nonetheless! I finally had to stop, take a deep breath, and make Jay be my focal point (standing in the front yard holding up a lighter like he was at a Northern Lights concert) to bring the full depth of field into focus. With a few experimental exposures, I finally got it dialed, and captured a shooting star in the process.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The most memorable part of the following two hours was something I could barely capture with the camera. The green band continued to glow, but long fingers of light started to descend from above us down to the horizon. When those disappeared, more fingers would extend from the horizon up into the sky. Sometimes three, four and five at a time would reach down or up, shift left or right … and be gone. THIS was the solar wind blowing through the atmosphere right in front of us. MAGIC!

Here was a moment to put down the camera and watch the science and beauty of the Northern Lights as two tiny human beings in an infinite galaxy. As fellow blogger Ron Mitchell often says, “Thank you, Abundant Universe.” We have seen the Lights and they are divine.

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

The Northern Lights :: Whitehorse, Canada

 

Experience Miscellaneous Outdoors

Sunset in Carvoeiro

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Right at this moment, it’s sunset at my little outpost on the world map and I’m reminiscing about this moment of magic on the southern coast of Portugal.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Out for a sunset stroll, we found the boardwalk in Carvoeiro. Looking east … a blue-green sea below sandstone cliffs. Looking west … a glowing sky becoming more radiant by the second.

There is always that brief, exact moment when the colors hit peak saturation before letting go and drifting over the horizon.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

One last look as Carvoeiro rested under the light.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

I’m late for the Rise/Set Weekly Photo Challenge but didn’t want to miss sharing this coastal moment, real and unfiltered. It’s nice to resurface and take a breath after a long stretch of work. Now all I need is a bottle of Madeira wine.

Miscellaneous wpc

Into the Tanneries of Fez, Morocco

Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.
~
Elias Canetti, The Voices of Marrakech

Hides at the tannery

Hides at the tannery

Death hangs constantly in front of us as we visit the Chaouwara tanneries in Fez. In the West, we rarely see where our food comes from, or our leather products come from. But here in Fez, we confront the truth directly as an aspect of life in Morocco.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

We wind our way upstairs through the leather shop onto a large terrace overlooking the tanneries. Our guide/salesman gives us a bit of mint to hold in front of our noses to mask the acrid smell of skin, lime, urine and pigeon dung. What’s transpiring in the tubs below is far less glamorous than all the colorful leather products on display inside.

The process of tanning leather by hand is arduous and toxic. Hair and flesh is removed from animal hides (mostly goat, from what we can tell) through techniques like soaking, salting, liming and scudding (trimming). Hides are submerged for hours or days and treated with enzymes and acids. In a sort of morbid, closed-loop production process, the natural byproducts of life — salt, urine and dung; from numerous sources — is applied to the hides to preserve them, make them pliable, and condition them for their end use.

Only some of the men working these tanneries wear gloves and boots. Others are submerged thigh-high, unprotected into watery contents of every color. No one wears a mask. This is a job that endangers and shortens lives.

What looks like mad chemistry to us surely has order and process from centuries of practice. Each man carries out his task alone. Hides go in, hides come out. Hides are dyed in various hues and set aside to dry. Nature holds an entire palette of plant-based, natural dyes but these days many colors are achieved through the use of unhealthy synthetic chemicals that pollute bodies and environments.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Dry hides are carried out and somewhere in some room within the labyrinth of Fez, workers are busy sewing the skin into shoes, skirts, jackets and handbags — made to order if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the shop.

Wandering through Fez the following day, we meet a boy on the street who offers to show us another tannery. We follow him down a few narrow paths to a sturdy wooden door. Behind the door we find more death — enormous piles of hides with the hair still attached, somehow seeming more alive than the hides from yesterday.

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

Tannery :: Fez, Morocco

This tannery is a smaller operation. The tubs sit at ground level surrounded on all sides by stairs, balconies, drying racks and doorways leading to the unknown — maybe housing for the men who work here. Most men working the tanneries are born into the job and carry it out for a lifetime. But many of them suffer from exposure to toxins through their skin and lungs. Breathing at a tannery for just ten minutes is proof enough that this a dangerous job. But for these workers it’s a way of life in an industry that shows increasing worldwide demand for beautiful leather goods from companies like Coach, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and even VF Corporation (a company I used to work for).

We climb the stairs for an overhead view into the stewing maze below us. Two men seem to be debating an issue in one of the tubs. “What do you think? Is it ready? I don’t know. Do you like the color?”

At the top of the stairs we emerge onto a rooftop where more skins are drying but the view of the blue sky feels hopeful and fresh. Our young guide shows us the bags of pigeon dung on the way out — collected and sold to the tanneries from a town nearby.

As always, traveling has taught me another lesson: be aware of the lives you affect by the choices you make. Do I really need a pair of those blue Moroccan slippers? Judging by their pretty design, one would never suspect the pain behind the product.

Local Color Miscellaneous Photography

A Thousand Shades of Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Near the northern tip of Morocco, in a pocket of sunshine at the base of the Rif mountain range, we arrive at Chefchaouen. Often called the Blue Pearl of Morocco, the town is a collage of blue and white against the earth tones of the landscape.

Since its founding in 1471, Chefchaouen has felt the influence of neighboring countries and cultures. Portuguese, Spaniards, Arabs and Berbers have all contributed to the town’s eclectic character and, according to many, the earliest Jewish residents left the most lasting, visible effect on Chefchaouen through their choice to paint the town blue — symbolic of sky, heaven and god above.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Wandering through Chefchaouen, the variations of blue feel cool and calming, aligned with the psychology of this color choice. Robes and rugs in warm hues contrast against the walls and the whole medina feels like an exercise in color theory. Johannes Itten would have loved this town.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

A shopkeeper, dressed in a shade of indigo, sits in front of a composition of orange. It’s as if he’s been surrounded by blue his entire life and has staged an unspoken revolt, creating a complementary universe.

 

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

The beautiful imperfection of Morocco continues throughout Chefchaouen. Everything is handmade and nothing is a standard size. It’s fun to speculate what’s behind each door, especially this tiny work of art. Probably not a king-size bed!

The shades of blue shift lighter and darker as the sun comes and goes, shining into each narrow lane only for a brief amount of time each day. We wander downhill and eventually find Plaza Uta el-Hammam where everyone is passing through and hanging out on a peaceful afternoon in Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

We meet a man who tells us he’s a trader from the Sahara desert. He has a stunning collection of jewelry, talismans and silver boxes. We’re drawn to a particular charm that he claims is a Bedouin compass. We buy it and he makes me a necklace for free. We’ve either paid too much for the compass or we’ve been given the gift of his kindness. I like to think it’s the latter.

The following day we take a day off from traveling and languish in our room. We’ve been on the road exploring for more than two weeks and it feels great to stop and rest for an entire day — something we rarely do. Perhaps the calming blues of Chefchaouen have had a deeper effect on us than we expected. It’s nice to sit and stay awhile.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Miscellaneous

The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.

***

We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.

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Culture Miscellaneous
Tangier, Morocco

Tangier: A Visual Feast to Start the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I’m kicking off 2018 with a post about a city I visited last spring. I hope you enjoy this portrait of Tangier, Morocco.

May, 2017

After two weeks in Portugal and Spain, the exotic allure of Morocco has my full attention. It’s been ten years since my last visit to the country but Morocco’s gypsy ambiance has never lost its grip on my heart.

We park the rental car at a long-term garage in Algeciras — nearly getting scammed in the process, but ultimately we outwit the jerk who is trying so desperately to usher us into a particular parking space. Basta! He runs off, pretending he’s calling the cops. The car is stored and we’re on our way to Tangier, the first stop on our week-long jaunt through northern Morocco.

As we ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar I wonder at the ocean water — apatite blue and as calm as Lake Tahoe. We begin to see the shore of Tangier stretching along our view to the east in a thin, bright line. The light seems magnified, one tiny step closer to the equator, with a palette devoid of the bright greens of the Algarve from where we’ve just come. It’s intriguing to imagine the Sahara desert not too far beyond us … an adventure for another time.

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

The Medina :: Tangier, Morocco

At the moment, Tangier is our adventure. The city climbs the hill in front of us like the San Francisco of Africa. Tangier is a melting pot and crossroads at the edge of the continent; a city of highs and lows as time and people have passed through it for centuries. At the moment, Tangier is revitalized and ready for the future with a huge new port, a beautiful beach promenade and all the culture a city needs to attract an international community.

Our riad is somewhere in the middle of this hillside collage. Within minutes of docking we’re in a taxi on our way around the medina.

We find our way to the kasbah and arrive at the side street where La Tangerina is high on the hill, tucked behind a grand wooden door. Typical of Moroccan architecture, La Tangerina is several stories tall with a central courtyard. Our room is a small, split-level unit overlooking the walkway out front.

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

Mint tea upon arrival :: Tangier, Morocco

We unpack a few things and retire to the rooftop deck where mint tea and cookies are waiting for us in a stylish assemblage which reminds me that even the smallest things in life can be done with great artistry. We feel sincerely welcomed. We toast to an exciting day, with a view of the Atlantic on one side and the medina on the other.

Our taxi driver returns at 5:00 p.m. for an hour-long walking tour of the medina. He’s a university student and earns extra money by giving tours, during which he can practice speaking English. For the next hour we wend our way through the maze of footpaths among the buildings, so tall on both sides it’s impossible to tell where we are. It feels a little like snorkeling — we come up for air and try to get our bearings each time a path emerges into an open space.

The medina is a study in textures and colors, and I find myself navigating by the most memorable of them. A yellow and blue wall with a row of plants on a doorstep is a favorite passageway.

The Hand of Fatima

The Hand of Fatima

The khamsa, or Hand of Fatima, hangs from more than a few doors as a protective symbol to ward off the evil eye. The khamsa is also a contemporary symbol of peace.

What I love most about Morocco is the endless embellishment of even the most mundane surfaces. Walking through the medina offers an endless display of intentional artistry. Doors and windows almost always have elegant, hand-hewn designs within the confines of plain rectangles. As I learned in Islamic geometric design class, the best designs (and most designs here, really) are made-to-measure. The starting point, ending point and placement have been carefully considered to avoid the odd cut, loose end or messy composition. Moroccan design is deliberate design at its very best.

The streets outside the medina are wider and easier to navigate, running down to the port and across to the Ville Nouvelle. But old city or new city, temptation exists at every doorway. The crafts, textiles and antiquities inside the shops speak a vibrant, expressive language and the much-loved neutrals of western palettes have little voice here.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We step into a shop with room after room of rugs, ceramics and home accessories. Overwhelmed with patterns and choices, the salesman leads us upstairs to share something he seems to know we’ll find of more interest.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

We emerge on the roof to another perspective of the medina. The midday sun strips the shadows from the mass of shapes on the hill and the call to prayer begins. This moment feels more valuable than any rug or accessory we might have had our eye on so we take it in and thank him for showing us.

We explore the fish market as well as the fruit and vegetable market set up along a street in the medina. The bounty of Morocco creates a variety of traditional dishes, including a sardine stew simmering in open tagines at a street-side cafe.

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

Berber woman at the market :: Tangier, Morocco

At every destination, the reaction to being photographed is something a photographer must explore and be aware of. In Mumbai, people loved being photographed but here in Morocco the general feeling I’ve gotten so far is total aversion. This is confirmed when I talk with a Berber woman about the cheese she’s selling at the market. She’s happy to show and sell her product but dips her hat to hide her face when I ask if I can shoot a photo. No matter — every culture is different and deserving of respect. I find myself shooting almost entirely with my phone because it’s faster and less conspicuous. Even still, and for this reason, most of my photos do not include people.

The indoor market holds even more piles, bins and boxes of Moroccan staples like lemons, olives, dates and nuts. For being so close to the Sahara desert, Tangier’s markets look surprisingly plentiful.

We stop for an afternoon coffee at the Grand Café de Paris. We choose a table along the back wall and watch the the world go by through the high windows overlooking the street. The brown leather chairs and buttoned-up waiters give an atmosphere of old elegance. No one moves too quickly — this is a place to meet and relax but an air of sophistication holds court over every customer. It feels as if anyone in the world might walk through the door.

To end our day we take a walk through the historic El-Minzah Hotel which opened in 1930. The walls are covered with photos of famous people who have come to the hotel including Rita Hayworth and Yves Cousteau.

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

El-Minzah Hotel :: Tangier, Morocco

The inner courtyard gives another nod to old elegance. In a quiet corner almost out of view, a bold antique sofa sits against a blue tiled wall under a framework of iron scrolls over a window. It is yet another effortless composition of pattern on pattern, color on color, that creates the singular sense of place that Morocco so clearly communicates.

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco

As we end our time in Tangier I capture one more photo of my favorite discovery within the medina. Down a dusty road in an unremarkable spot, this profusion of Islamic geometric design sits in solitude with chips and cracks that show its age — wabi-sabi in Tangier. Perfect, symmetrical, made-to-measure and stunning. It is my favorite discovery of our whole trip.

It’s time to catch the train and move on from Tangier. We taxi to the station and make a run for it, reluctant to leave this charming, rustic city. It’s been so fun to explore … and only just a warm-up for the coming labyrinth that is Fez.

Culture Miscellaneous
Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Divine Gifts

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Last spring, we spent three weeks exploring Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Throughout those three weeks we kept seeing hints of glorious wildflowers as we traveled through the countries in cars, taxis, trains and buses. We would point to the flowers from the windows as the blooms whizzed past us in a blur of color.

Driving north from Marbella to Seville in a rental car, we had finally regained the luxury of stopping whenever and wherever we wanted. As we flew down the highway near Ardales, we saw a flash of crimson to our left. We looked at each other. Should we go back? Yes. Can we turn around here? No idea but we’ll figure out how. A couple miles down the road we exited the highway and back-tracked to a paved road near the red swath. We had a hunch that something wonderful lay just beyond the crest of the hill.

We drove up, turned left onto a dirt road, parked the car and set out on foot. In the first three minutes, J was farther up the hill, knee-deep in bright red poppies, silhouetted against the blue sky along with the wind turbines.

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Walking south, the poppies intensified. Their dotted mass blotted out the stems underneath in a pointillist’s gradient from green to red.

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

Poppies in Ardales, Spain

The sight was overwhelming, unexpected, spectacular. If we had not slowed down … if we had not been looking … if we had not been curious … if we had not been willing to change direction … we would have missed it. Barely in view, just beyond reach … a divine gift waiting to be discovered, marveled, and ultimately left behind in every way except memory. What a memory.

Life’s gifts are everywhere. Some are clear and present, others can only be discovered. (A traveler’s spirit helps, I think!)

On this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the divine gifts in my life — a wonderful family, a super adorable husband and travel partner, exceptional friends around the world, a life and career I love, and all of YOU who find something in my writing that compels you all the way to my final words, right here and now. Thank YOU! Happy Thanksgiving!

The super adorable husband

The super adorable husband

Miscellaneous Photography