Thursday, May 31, 2007

I'm a little tiny speck of the universe

There's something magical about the mountains.
The view from the roof terrace of the family home we stayed at this week, in the town of Imlil. That's Jebel Toubkal in the middle, the highest peak in North Africa. The place we stayed at cost 7 bucks a night including breakfast, our own kitchen and living room, incredible views, privacy, and a brand new squatter toilet. Quite a luxury for the senses, without beating up the wallet.
Here's the view from our bedroom window
I think I used to be an ocean person when I was younger, but now I'm more amazed by mountains. The massive size of them, the way they are always changing, how at different times of day the colors evolve, especially the reds that come out at sunset. The crisp, clean mountain air and bright blue skies above. The way the clouds dance and get stuck in between valleys. The snow melting creating streams and waterfalls and leaving wrinkles on the mountain faces revealing its age. The desire to climb the highest peaks and feeling the contrast of being on top of the world as well as being an incredibly miniscule part of the universe.
Rush hour traffic in Imlil. Bumper to bumper mules on the freeway.
Spent the last week in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, far from civilization and the evil, life-draining, vital fluid depleting computers that control the universe and are brainwashing you as we speak. The High Atlas are quite a contrast from the dry, arid desert that we were in last week. We climbed up to the top of Jebel Toubkal, at 4167 meters, North Africa's highest peak.
Here we are starting on the trail to the top of . A guide, a cook, a mule, and some crappy, soleless skate shoes.
The views were spectacular of jutting granite peaks, and lush river valleys in the distance. I love the feeling of climbing a high mountain peak when you can go no further without flying. The natural high you get from the oxygen thin air. It's like nothing else in the world......
a pit stop tea stand on the way to the top
In the distance to the right, the refugio we stayed at one night, before making the push to the summit, early the next morning.
The refugio viewed from our afternoon siesta sleeping rock.
At the top of Toubkal. This was a guide from a different group. His English consisted of 2 line rhymes such as 'No money, no honey', 'No pain, no gain', 'No hurry, no worry'. I taught him 'No glove, no love', to add to his repertoire.
The view from the top, and if you look to the bottom right, tiny little people on the trail, making their way up.
The original mountain man, yelling out it's claim as king of the mountain.
But I mean no disrespect to the ocean. I will always love you. You and your crashing waves will always be a part of me.......I just don't think I'm ready to settle down with only one of mother nature's natural beauties right now. So if it's ok with you, I'd like to have a polygamous relationship with you the ocean, as well as the majestic mountains. I like it's rough and ruggedness beauty, that contrasts with your soft and wet salinity. And who knows, maybe one day, we can add an extraterrastrial affair with the stars into the mix.
Yours truly contemplating life, love, and the deeper meaning of the universe..........
But thank you for always being there for me. I'm glad you're only violently angry with me during the winter months and parts of El Niño. The mountains are aware of you, and are willing to share my love if you are........and in some places of the world such as Big Sur, California, or Santorini, Greece - the mountains are willing to meet you half way on an equal and equivalent basis.......Even if you might have the upper hand during El Niño.
....only to be distracted by a bird flying by to the left of the screen...'flyyy pelican, flyyyy'
Speaking of violent storms with a Spanish name origin, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

330 Year Old Chain Stores

I am not trying to make this GQ tough-guy face, I'm just concentrating on
getting the camera pointed in the right direction to frame our photo, really.

My friend Efun and I went to the Yuyuan Gardens this last weekend. These 330 year old gardens took 18 years to build. It was a bit to Disney for me, a bit like the tourist pier in San Francisco with a bit more tact. Supposedly the most famous tea house in China is here. Both Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II drank here (together I wonder? You never know with Bill).

The famous Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse on the left

What surprised me most was the 330 year Haagen-Daz, KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks. I knew the Chinese invented those chains during the Ming Dynasty.

These chains are all expensive compared to the local fare. I'm not sure why they are always filled with foreigners. Shouldn't travelers and tourists be trying the local food such as BBQ pigeon on a stick?

Efun and I left the gardens to go find some local vegetarian food. Navigated the narrow alleys west of the gardens until we found a restaurant that had my favorite vegetable, hollow heart vegetable wok friend with garlic.

The little hole-in-the-wall eatery had a poster of the Chairman. I tried to make the serious face that Mao was sporting but it just looks like I am staring into space. I figure in about five more years my hair should be the same as Mao's so I'll have to come back for another photo.

Friday, May 25, 2007

sun, sand, sand, sand, sand, and more sand, and sand.....

this last week was spent in the sahara desert (hi mom, yes i'm still alive), with half of that time on a camel safari through mountains of sand.
a 600' high piece of sandi told myself after doing a painful camel safari in jaisalmer india three months ago ((refresh your nostalgic memory here)), i would never get on a camel again......unless i was in the great romanticized sand dunes of the sahara. despite apprehension from my backside, i kept my word, and spent three days on camel back in erg chebbi here in morocco. it's a vast expanse of never ending sand dunes. i was not dissapointed, and have to say that it's one of the most incredible environments i've ever been thrown into (i wasn't actually thrown in, but more like blown in, since we arrived in the middle of a sandstorm. also, i voluntarily went into the desert on my own will. but does any of this matter?).
camel caravan crossing the sahara
the sand dunes are constantly changing. we arrived in the middle of a hurricane like sandstorm. the one road into town was covered in swirling hills of sand. for those of you who have been to denver international airport, it looks like the access road from the city during a white out snowstorm, only with sand instead of snow. snow is a good correlation for the sands of erg chebbi. during a sandstorm, you have zero visibility, constantly pelted with horizontal flying sand, just like snow in a winter blizzard. the sand dunes are constantly changing. looking up from below, they look like gigantic ochre colored mountains, with cornices blowing in the wind. from the top they look like a flowing sea of waves - cresting, and breaking in the wind. but talk's cheap. let's look at the photos, shall we, as i run out to the loo to get the sand out of my ears:
an early morning 5 am hike up to the top for sunrise. you can see our camp down below to the left
here comes the sun
goose! (remember the game duck, duck, goose?....c'mon, i'm tired. got sand in my lungs, and i'm running out of blogging ideas)
sunset in the sahara, with sand dunes in the distance. photo taken from a black rock desert created from an old volcanic explosion. photo created from a nikon d70s with a fisheye lens sponsored by state farm insurance who replaced my original camera stolen 18 months ago.
multi-animal harmony
camels framing a tiny residence where we stayed, along the nomadic bedouin trail. these camels belong to nomadic bedouins who were also stopping en route. of course, they didn't pay tourist prices since they brought their own camels and didn't need a guide.
every night in the desert, whether on the trek, or in town, we slept outside under the stars, watching satellites go by, shooting stars, and the milky way moving above. it was heavenly. we preferred sleeping in the desert as opposed to in town on the hotel roof, since there are no 3:30 am mosque prayer calls in the middle of the sahara. a photo from the tiny residence window where we should of slept, and cecile demonstrating the necessary equipment for staying warm under the stars - a sleepsheet, portable cushion, blankets, and a happy cheerful attitude at 5:30 in the morning.
the sun shining on the camel where the sun don't shine.
for another shining star, check out, Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Six Foot Ten Inch Giant

A friend of a friend has joined me here in Shanghai. Musician and world traveler Scott arrived late on Tuesday and about twelve hours later, the 6'10" American and I hit the streets. If I thought I was getting stared at before, now I was getting the attention of just about everyone we passed. Chinese people kept coming up to us and asking if Scott was taller than Chinese NBA star Yao Ming.
Chinese NBA star Yao Ming. He's the tall guy, not the bald guy.

We meet some Calligraphy students who showed us their works and offered to write us something in Chinese Calligraphy. My friend Soledad asked me to get her a Chinese name so I asked the students if they could come up with one.

Great Success

from your American friend
Sha La De (Soledad in Chinese)
great success in all your life
from Shanghai [artists name - the stamp in red]

沙 Sha = sand
拉 La = pull
德 De = good virtues

After the art experience, Scott and I meet two girls who asked us to tea. We tried many quality teas and had a great hour and a half with Linda and JuiJui. All and all, a good first day in Asian for Scott.
2 meter 8 centimeter Scott had to duck down to fit in the picture

Monday, May 21, 2007

Foreigners Pee on the Floor

Okay, in any mens' bathroom you will see the the signs of men who have trouble with aim. The interesting thing about the signs above the two stand-up toilets in the men's room on the floor I am working on here in Shanghai is the fact that they are posted in English. I don't have any hard facts, but I have never seen any statistics showing that USA/UK/Australia/New Zealand/etc. people soil the floor around the urinal any more than Chinese. And, to the best of my knowledge, my friend Cortney and I are the only two non-Chinese on the floor. I am pretty conscious of my actions and I have good aim... so it must be Cortney who is missing the mark (just kidding friend).

There is a message by the toilets in Chinese but it is really short (often two symbols equals one word). Probably says something like, "Beware of foreigners' urine on floor."

Good news: I get a new camera tomorrow so no more terrible cell phone photos.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Local Encounters of the Three Kinds

ruined ksours (hardened earth-mud castles) dot the landscape throughout the deserts of Morocco
Since leaving Marrakech, I've been slowly making my way east towards the great sand dunes of the Sahara. Originally wasn't going to go there since time is running short, but I figured it be a shame to miss the mythical, stereotypical image of Morocco and the Sahara. From Marrakech, there's one main route to get there, with some natural sites worth stopping to visit en route. I stopped at Dades Gorge and Todra Gorge along the way, both on the tourist trail.
river view of Todra GorgeHowever most tourists go in package tour busses or 4WD tours. Due to budget concerns and allergic reactions towards tour groups, I've been relying on local busses and hitching rides. It's about a fifth of the cost, but takes twice as long, since there are no direct routes to the gorges. The tour groups are funny. They get out of their vehicles, stop for an hour to take photos and buy souvenirs, and get back in their bus or car and jet to the next site. Thus missing some beautiful off the trail scenery and hikes.
A makeshift ladder on a hike I did in Dades Gorge.
A river palmierie (palm tree grove next to a river oasis) with the Monkey Fingers sandstone formation in the background
But I can't be totally disrespecting the package tour groupees since I hitched a 30km ride back into town from a group of Frenchies in a Land Rover. Ha Ha, paying suckers. On the three bus rides I've been on this week, I've seen maybe a total of 2 or 3 foreigners on them. While local transport is slower and more taxing on the body, it does allow for some interesting observations and encounters. Here's three local encounters from this week:
1. The first bus ride, a 7 hour journey from Marrakech to Boulmane, I experienced a first in my travels. In the middle of a hot, packed bus, a 20 something year old Moroccan guy dressed in a jellebah (traditional, long flowing robe) travelling with his mother, was basically screaming Jihad for the first 4 hours of the trip.
Road sign translates to 'Warning, loud screaming fundamentalists ahead'
I recognized a few words he was screaming, Mohammed, Abraham, Islam, and at one point he said, America. I thought about starting a chorus of America the Beautiful, but I don't know the words in Arabic or Berber. But it didn't matter since I'm sure he was saying nothing but complimentary words and phrases about the stars and stripes. Eventually his friends calmed him down, or he just ran out of material.
2. The other day while waiting for the final leg of the hitch-a-ride/bus ride/shared minivan triathalon, a group of local guys invited me to the Moroccan pastime of sharing mint tea. The guys were super friendly asking if I was enjoying my stay in Morocco, what places have I visited, and so on, and so on. While drinking, one guy said 'I have a brother in New York. He live Brookline'. I responded, 'Oh, you mean Brooklyn?' To which he replied, 'Yes, yes, yes! Do you know heem?!?' The wise ass in me wanted to say, 'Oh yeah, with New York City having a population of 8.1 million, and Brooklyn having about 2.5 million of that number, Brooklyn is similar to one of your small nomadic Berber tribes where everyone knows everyones name including the sheep they're herding.' But it was too hot and I couldn't be bothered. So I just said, 'No, I don't know heeem.'
3. This was by far, my favorite encounter. While doing a 4 hour hike up and around the Todra Gorge,....
view from the top of the hike, with the tiny road in the distance marking the starting point the dry windswept mountain top in the middle of nowhere, I ran into this.
nomadic living
A nomadic Berber family of a mother and her 2 kids. Nothing but a makeshift fabric roof and hand placed stones marking the residence. I asked her for directions back to town, and she invited me in for tea. It was wonderful to have her open her house to me (technically, it's already open since it's a makeshift tent with makeshift rock walls surrounding it), to see how they lived, and despite the language barrier, we communicated with smiles and hand gestures.
tea for two
Meanwhile, I kept the one toddler entertained with the Brazilian finger snap, and also blowing spit bubbles. He could not stop laughing, especially to the finger snapping. I don't think he gets out much.
The older one on the right had a shaved head with a tiny tuft of hair in the back. He looked like a little Hari Krishna. And is it me, or does the baby on the left look like an alien?
On my way down, I had a fourth bonus encounter. This lone mule standing on the trail, not moving, not doing anything, was just standing there the entire time I hiked. I asked him for directions and I didn't even get a tail wag. I then chastised him, and told him that he and his friends need to stop pooping on the trail. It's unsanitary, disgusting, and keeps getting on my shoes. He responded with two wags of the tail.
He's no Mr. Ed. The oasis town of Tizgui in the background.
For a real out of this world experience, check out Dónde está Ché Pelotas?