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
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

Sagres, at the Edge of Europe

Sagres, Portugal

Sagres, Portugal

Spring, 2017

At the tip of southwest Portugal, we find Sagres. It is awash in pastel colors — flesh colored tones of earth, a moody green-gray ocean and a blue sky that is trying its hardest to transition to summer … unsuccessfully.

Pousada Sagres

Pousada Sagres

We spend the night in a pousada at the literal edge of the country. Portugal’s pousadas are old buildings — convents, castles and palaces — renovated and run as hotels by the government. They’re authentic, fairly affordable and, in some cases, stunning places to stay. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re traveling to Portugal.

Sagres, Portugal

Sagres, Portugal

From Pousada Sagres we have a westerly view to the lighthouse at Fortaleza Sagres. Beyond the fort and peninsula, there is nothing but the vast Atlantic Ocean, whipped up into a cold, churning bath on windy day like today. We bundle up and head to the fort, stopping first for a short hike down to Tonel Beach.

Except for the Mediterranean color palette, the dramatic coastline resembles Northern California’s Big Sur and Bolinas.

We enter Fortaleza Sagres, the departure point of Prince Henry the Navigator who sought a maritime route to Asia around the southern tip of Africa. The single column at the start of the path is a “replica of the marker stone (Padrão) used by the Portuguese navigators in the fifteenth century to mark newly discovered territories. It displays the coat-of-arms of Prince Henry, the Navigator.” I wonder … how many padrãos did he take with him?

The stark walls of the church, Nossa Senhora de Graça, support a cross silhouetted against the sky.

Sagres Fortress, Portugal

Sagres Fortress, Portugal

The most astonishing thing about the fortress is that the original was severely damaged by the earthquake of 1755. The resulting tsunami washed over this peninsula and everything on it. Can you imagine seeing a tidal wave coming toward you that’s higher than these cliffs?

We walk for an hour in the wind, following the road past the lighthouse to the farthest point of the peninsula. It feels like we’re in a never-ending journey of one-point perspective as the road leads eternally to the horizon.

A  circular maze invites us in at the end of the peninsula. Something about architecture in the middle of nowhere is hard to resist.

The churning Atlantic

The churning Atlantic

We return to the edge of the cliff. Although it’s a pretty color, the churning Atlantic does not look welcoming today. I’m happy to have my feet on the ground.

The path vanishes behind us as we head back to the entrance and find the mysterious Rose Compass interlaced with yellow wildflowers. Sundial or navigational tool? I’m not sure, but it’s time to go. Where to next? Let’s try the Algarve and Carvoeiro.

The Rose Compass, Sagres Fortress

The Rose Compass, Sagres Fortress

Miscellaneous Nature Outdoors Photography
Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats

Helloooo! It’s been a long time since my last post. In the travel blogging world, this usually means the blogger is tired, out of money and content, or traveling. And sometimes, all of the above! Lucky for me, I’ve been traveling. It’s been a fun few months and I have lots to share with you very soon — southern Portugal and Spain, Morocco, and a few other places I’ve been to on recent road trips in the U.S.

For today’s post, I’m easing back into the blogging routine with photos from the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. I was there last month. This place looked so cool while traveling along the eastbound lane of I-70 that we made a hard left turn, illegally crossed the median (in a U-Haul, no less) and pulled over to check it out. There’s something magnetic about the flats — inspiring endless photos and, for many people, the desire to drive across the flats at high speed (which is legal). This is how the Bonneville Speedway came about and all of the land speed records since then.

In the winter the salt flats are covered by a thin layer of water but as summer arrives the water evaporates. Nearly all of it was gone at the time of our visit but a few pools remained. We stepped across them onto the dry skin of the flats. The matte finish was a network of paths where the water had collected and evaporated leaving behind a crystalline grit that felt firm underfoot and tasted as salty as it looked. The sun eventually came out, bringing the entire landscape into focus at an almost unbearable brightness against the blue sky.

The history of the salt flats starts in the Pleistocene era. During the glaciation of the Ice Age, Lake Bonneville was a “pluvial lake” — filled by rainwater, without an outflow. The lack of an outflow caused the lake to become salty (just like Salt Lake, the Dead Sea, etc.) because the naturally occurring amount of salt in the water couldn’t be released as it normally is when water flows downstream.

Lake Bonneville was nearly 1,000 feet deep, with a shoreline about 1,000 feet higher than the current elevation of the salt flats. At one point Lake Bonneville overflowed, releasing an enormous volume of water and lowering the shoreline considerably. In the millennia since then, the climate has become more arid causing the remaining lake to evaporate, leaving behind a salt pan that was once the bottom of the lake.

So here we are, on the top of the bottom … a natural wonder from thousands and thousands of years ago.

More posts coming soon — including a series that’s very dear to my heart, starting tomorrow!

Miscellaneous Photography

Streets and Markets of Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Our taxi stops in the middle of traffic and we step out into the mayhem of Mumbai at rush hour. Across the pulsing artery of cars and pedestrians, I see the ruddy stone exterior of Crawford Market with its clock tower silhouetted against the hazy blue sky.

Crawford Market opened in 1865 and in 1882 it was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity. The market goes by two names : Crawford Market (the original name, after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner Arthur Crawford) as well as  Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (the current name, after Indian activist and social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule).

There’s a bust across from a small shop in the market where we stop to buy water. I have no idea what the inscription on the bust says, but I think this is Mr. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule himself.

The order and color of Crawford Market is a nice relief from the chaos just outside the entrance. Fruit is arranged in piles, big and small. A pineapple vendor is totally surrounded. Which ones are new? Which ones are old? It’s a secret only he knows. The watermelons are bright green and stacked with such precision it seems like removing one would release the whole pile into a rolling mess.

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Behind the fruit stalls, the betel nut seller sits on a stone step with his basket full of concoctions. He’s a willing subject when I motion with my camera so I crouch down and see the leaves, the white lime residue and the intensity of his stare. Even now as I edit these photos, I’m struck by the directness — not only in his eyes but in the eyes of a number of men in these photographs. Sometimes people smile with uneasiness when photographed, but in Mumbai there is fearlessness… a willingness to engage. He asks to see the photo and is happy with the result.

I watch the porters who work for hire carrying heavy loads for shoppers and shopkeepers. Dressed in plaid sarongs and sandals, they come and go with their big circular baskets — hoisted up high with one hand, placed on the top of the head or at rest on the ground.

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

In between loads, the porters hang out together. Maybe he’s checking the score of the cricket match.

This is a spice market, too, where we find jar after jar of exotic smelling masala and curry powders. There is no such thing as a teaspoon here. The spice sellers place heaping scoops in shallow dishes and we inhale the complexity: vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, green curry, madras medium curry, tandoori chicken masala, hot curry and even just “normal curry.” And then there’s the Special Spice King Masala 96 — a proprietary blend. With their intense, earthy hues, the spice powders look as rich and powerful as they smell.

We leave Crawford Market. The displays of fruits and vegetables continue on the street. We wander through Mangaldas textile market (where a female officer warns me that I can’t take photos) and emerge on the other side. Cows wander the street, a guy roasts peanuts over a fire on a wooden cart, and another guy stirs the pot… making big swoops with his ladle through a steaming pot of dahl while he stares at me with all the intensity of Mumbai.

Flower Market, Mumbai

Flower Market, Mumbai

Big, beautiful baskets of color greet us at the flower market. We duck into a narrow alley where men sit on elevated platforms, fulfilling orders for customers. They string flowers together in fragrant garlands used for festivals, marriages, rituals and to honor deities at temples.

Bees buzz around the piles of blossoms, the aroma of jasmine lingers in the air and life in Mumbai carries on.

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Miscellaneous Photography
2016: A Ski Odyssey

2016: A Ski Odyssey

Somewhere between British Columbia and Alberta, Canada

Somewhere between British Columbia and Alberta, Canada

Winter is almost here, so how about a ski story?

Last March we packed the car and set out on a two-week ski odyssey around British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. It wasn’t just any car. It was a Chevy Suburban of Secret Service caliber — black, with tinted windows and enough room to fit all the president’s men. We debated with the rental car company about the vehicle being TOO big and even drove it back to try to exchange it for something smaller.

When we returned to Budget Rent-a-Car, the irony was thick. Here was a lovely Budget employee from India, about five feet tall standing next to the Chevy Monstrosity, who had never skied a day in his life yet insisted this was the perfect four-wheel drive vehicle for our trip. His enthusiasm was so irresistible, we went with it. And it turns out he was absolutely right. Not only did the Secret Service Ski Suburban (SSSS) accommodate the obscene amount of gear and clothing we had for every foreseeable winter condition, but it also gave us a real sense of setting out on an epic road trip through the Canadian Rockies. We don’t own a car, so suddenly having our hands gripped on the steering wheel of the most massive winter expeditionary vehicle was like … Yes! We are doing this! And it’s going to be awesome.

We drove from Vancouver to Kelowna to Revelstoke to Golden to Lake Louise to Nelson to Osoyoos and back to Vancouver. We skied Big White, Revelstoke and Kicking Horse, and J also indulged in a day of heli-skiing in the Selkirk Mountains. Lucky for us, March was a winter wonderland with great ski conditions throughout the trip and we also enjoyed a couple of snowy days at the Fairmont Lake Louise.

Big White

Big White hulks with mass — it is not a steep mountain, but a heavy blanket of snow transforms the upper reaches into a bizarre and beautiful landscape. The snow entirely engulfs the trees, kind of like that clumpy white flocking on fake Christmas trees. Known as “snow ghosts” with their unusual costumes, the trees resemble everything from dinosaurs to shrimp tempura (bang on description, J). The tree skiing at Big White is fantastic — again, not too steep and not too fast, with dips and dives like little roller coasters off every run. With such beautiful terrain, even riding the lifts at Big White was enjoyable.

Revelstoke

From Big White we pointed the SSSS to Revelstoke. We passed some bighorn sheep along the way and pulled into our hotel in the early evening as flurries began to fly. Revelstoke is an old mining town still clinging to its identity and character. The architecture retains the style and scale of years past, and the shops and restaurants have a friendly, welcoming charm rarely found in bigger cities. No stop in Revelstoke would be complete without at least one visit to the Village Idiot Bar and Grill for great food and hospitality.

We hit the mountain in the morning and although the sun wasn’t shining, the runs were empty and easy to cruise. The slopes at Revelstoke Mountain Resort are much steeper and more difficult than Big White. Off-piste terrain is plentiful and you might even come across a cliff here and there — but they’ll try to warn you with a tiny orange sign. Pay attention!

Eagle Pass Heliskiing, Revelstoke

For J, the highlight of the Ski Odyssey was a day in the backcountry of the Selkirk Mountains with Eagle Pass Heliskiing. They accidentally over-booked and since we had some flexibility with our days, he got bumped to a different day with unlimited vertical and better weather. Win-win. He suited up in an inflatable pack, did about 15 runs with a group of four and enjoyed one of the best ski days of his life. Needless to say, the views were breathtaking and the powder was fresh. (Maybe I’ll join him next time.)

Kicking Horse

After Revelstoke, we drove on to Kicking Horse in Golden, BC. This resort was my favorite of the trip. It’s heavy on the double black diamonds and, with wide open bowls, there are endless lines to ski and lots of drop-ins to make your runs just a little more thrilling. The Stairway to Heaven lift gives a scenic view of the entire Crystal Bowl and the view from the top explains how the lift got its name.

What I enjoyed the most (aside from no lift lines) was dropping into Feuz Bowl and looking back at the massive panorama behind us.

Kicking Horse, British Columbia, Canada

Kicking Horse, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Louise

From Kicking Horse, we hurried over to lake Louise for two days of luxury next to the lake. We arrived on a beautiful, blustery afternoon. After banging around in ski boots for more than a week, it was nice to warm our toes in the comfort of the Fairmont. Winter cocktails and fondue made it extra wonderful. Because who doesn’t love hot cheese in the middle of winter?

Lake Louise Ski Resort is just across the highway from the Fairmont, but with so much fun right outside our hotel door we never did make it to that mountain. Lake Louise was frozen and covered in snow, inviting a walk across to the other end. The Fairmont had also constructed a magnificent ice castle on the lake, inspiring people to play, pose and get outside to experience the beauty of winter. With a sense of adventure and a few shots of Fireball, who knew a frozen lake could be so fun?

Happy winter everyone! Let’s get outside, point our feet downhill and see where the next adventure takes us.

Miscellaneous Photography
Buchart Gardens

Pure Color at Butchart Gardens

An October afternoon at Butchart Gardens, in photos. Heavenly! Are words even necessary? Not really, other than mentioning that Butchart Gardens is just outside Victoria on Vancouver Island. Trails lead through 55 acres of trees, plants and flowers, still cared for by the Butchart family more than 100 years after Jennie Butchart transformed the former limestone quarry into a complex of gardens with regional themes. And the dahlias! My favorite part — a perfect blend of art and science in every bloom. Enjoy!

Miscellaneous Photography

Sea to Sky and Peak to Peak

Storms have been rolling through Vancouver during the past week, so I thought I’d share two recent local adventures before fall turns to winter.

The Sea to Sky and Peak to Peak experiences sweep you up, down and all around the mountains between Squamish and Whistler, B.C. Both outings take you right into the wilderness within one to two hours of the city.

The Sea to Sky Gondola lifts off from Basecamp (at sea level) to the Summit Lodge (885 meters) in about ten minutes. I made the trip on a dreary day, but the views from the top were still vast and breathtaking — especially from the suspension bridge. If you’re really up for a challenge, you can bypass the gondola and go by foot from the parking lot to the Summit Lodge. Three viewing platforms are within easy walking distance from the lodge and a trail network leads to the surrounding mountains beyond.

Just up the highway from the Sea to Sky Gondola, the Peak to Peak Experience takes you from Whistler Village to the Top of the World Summit, across the valley to Blackcomb on the Peak to Peak Gondola and back down to the village on two final chairlifts. I made this journey on a much sunnier day and it was an absolute blast to see the resort in a season other than winter, without my ski goggles. Getting to the Top of the World Summit is a precarious ride past cliff faces and up steep slopes still covered in ice from last season. But the view from the top is spectacular.

Then the fun really begins — going back down on the Peak Express chairlift. Not for the faint of heart or fearful of heights!

At the bottom of the Peak Express, transfer to the Peak to Peak Gondola — a massive operation that takes you all the way across the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb.

I looked for bears in the riverbed below. According to a guide who was riding in our gondola, they are often visible — about 60 bears live around Whistler/Blackcomb. I didn’t see any of them but the bird’s eye view of the river through the trees was unexpectedly cool.

After a pit-stop at the Rendezvous for a glass of wine with my hiking buddy, it was time to descend back to the village, above grassy slopes and wildflowers.

On a sunny summer day, the Peak to Peak is a fantastic mountain adventure. With a day pass, you can ride the lifts either direction, as many times as you want. But you’ll have to wait until next year … the Peak to Peak experience is closed for the season and the snow has arrived!

Miscellaneous Photography