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 (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.

***

Miscellaneous

Making Paper in Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan

From the Archives: Bhutan, 2013

The Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory sits on a hill overlooking the mountainous terrain of Thimphu, Bhutan. The paper factory illustrates the government’s resolve to support the local economy by preserving the country’s traditional arts, including paper making.

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, Bhutan

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, Bhutan

Jungshi means “natural” and the entire paper making operation is true to that name. Bark from several species of Daphne and Edgeworthia shrubs goes through a process of transformation from bark to pulp to paper, known as deh-sho. Bhutan’s Forestry Department uses sustainable practices to farm the shrubs and supply the bark to several paper making operations around the country, including Jungshi. Jungshi produces about 1,500 sheets of paper per day.

Bark from the shrubs is soaked in water to break down its structure, then strained from the liquid and brought inside the factory. The stringy mass is fed into a grinder which spits out the pulp into a big vat, like a giant bowl of oatmeal.

Fiber to Pulp :: Bhutan

Fiber to Pulp :: Bhutan

The next step is where the magic happens. I was at the factory in the late afternoon when golden light was pouring in the windows as this woman worked with the paper screen. Watery pulp is spread evenly across the screen, then the screen is lifted out, aligned with the growing stack of wet paper, released on top of it and peeled off from the opposite edge, leaving behind the new sheet of paper.

Preparing pulp on the screen

Preparing pulp on the screen

Lifting the screen to the stack of paper

Lifting the screen to the stack of paper

Aligning the screen with the stack

Aligning the screen with the stack

Releasing the screen on top of the stack

Releasing the screen on top of the stack

Peeling the screen away from the opposite edge

Peeling the screen away from the opposite edge

Revealing the new sheet of paper

Revealing the new sheet of paper

Stacks of paper sit throughout the factory — some of them wet, some of them dry, some of them sandwiched and pressed for flatness.

Sheet by sheet, dry paper is hung from an easel where it’s brushed off and inspected for quality.

The finished paper is stamped with the Jungshi logo, then either shipped out from the factory or placed in the paper shop at the site. According to the U.N., demand for handmade paper from Bhutan comes mainly from Sweden and the U.K. Paper is used for greeting cards, gift wrap, stationery, books and certificates.

The Jungshi paper shop offers a nice collection of sheets and paper products, some of which contain additional leaves and flowers that grow wild around the landscape of Bhutan. Perhaps you recognize what’s been added here?

Art wpc
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

Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

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