Tuesday, December 16, 2008

December 12th, 2008
Santa Barbara, CA

"Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns."
~Author Unknown

Sometimes a traveler just needs a break. For years Mama and I have been journeying to war-torn, depressed economies where the money comes easy but the travel does not. We've searched out hardship and challenge to test ourselves but this year called for something different: a break. Some might call it a "vacation"....visiting a place where one isn't harassed as soon as they step out into the street, where the toilets are clean, and the economy is strong. The novelties of first world travel might soon wear off for us over multiple trips but, for this year, a vacation was the perfect tonic for our weary souls. Let's face it, 2008 has been a difficult year for everyone I know....need I list it all?....and sometimes we just need a rest from it all.

I'm grateful to New Zealand for giving us just that. The kindness of the people, the mellowness of travel, and the wide open spaces where one can hear their own thoughts and take a sidestep from the ever humming chaos of the world. Vacations like this remind me of the elegance of simplicity: how important it is to keep my life less "cluttered" and instead, filled with quality time doing the things I love and being with those whom I cherish.

I thank New Zealand for reminding me of those lessons (as I struggle to stay balanced in the endless decisions of daily life back in the "real world") and I highly recommend visiting there to anyone looking for some fresh air and a break from "The Grind."

In Tribute to our journey in the Land of Sheep-Eating Parrots and Incredibly Cheery People, I've decided to give you a random taste of what I love most about New Zealand.

With Great Fondness and Dedicated to all the Greatly Helpful, Cheery Kiwis (except that one somber guy at the internet cafe in Nelson): I present to you....

"Rachel's 50 Tell-Tale Signs You're In New Zealand (in no particular order)"

1) Cars actually STOP for pedestrians...instead of speeding up to hit them.
2) "Scroggin" is something you eat out of a bag, not something you do in the sack.
3) Prostitution and gambling are legal but smoking in a restaurant is not.
4) The buses actually arrive and leave on time and no one tries to throw you off when you refuse to buy hash from their brother at the rest stop (not that that's happened to us before).
5) "Bitchamen" is a sealed road, "pasties" are something you eat not wear, "chips" are fries, "crisps" are chips, and "kiwi" is either a fruit, a bird, a person, or a combination of the above.
6) You don't have to tip anyone and you STILL get great service.
7) You can pay someone to go "punting" in Christchurch and you won't even get arrested for it. (Hint: It's something you do in the water in a very long boat...think Venice.)
8) The people working at the Visitor Center actually want to help you and do it quite cheerily.
9) When you bump into someone on the street, they say they're "sorry."
10)You can drink the tapwater without regretting it later.
11) The rest stops have toilets which are free and clean.
12) A food vendor offers to put tomato sauce (catsup) on anything you order...crepes, eggs....?.
13) A "dag" is someone who is a character. "Dag" can also be a term referring to the ball of manure hanging off a sheep's bum (i.e. "dingleberry").
14) The bus driver is not only cheery, but actually tells you what to get off on for the market. Another bus driver apologizes that they can't help pay for a passenger who comes up short and is late for work.
15) You know what a "haka" is and you're not grossed out by it.
16) The local food court offers inexpensive and tasty (besides the infamous McD's) Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Turkish food all for under $10.
17) You don't have to tuck your money belt deep in your waistband when walking through the city at night and you don't fear for your life when passing a group of young skateboarders.
18) The skateboarders actually say "hi" back to you.
18) The monosyllabic word "no" becomes a polysyllabic "nah-woo-ah."
19) The food at the airport is cheap and it tastes good.
20) You don't have to show your ID to board domestic flights and you can bring liquids with you!
21) The airline actually apologizes when your flight is delayed and then reroutes all of your connecting flights without being asked to.
22) Your luggage makes it, too.
23) The taxi drivers round your fare DOWN. Every time.
24) More than six cars in a roundabout is considered a traffic jam.
24.5) While backpacking, you can spill your peanut butter or tuna fish lunch on your clothes and not live in fear that you'll be eaten by a grizzly in the middle of the night.
25) A 3,000 foot mountain pass is called a "hill."
26) Some of the park trails are so well maintained that you could take roller luggage with you instead of a backpack.
27) Two Words: Sand Flies. "The gift that keeps on giving," as a Kiwi/American friend tells us.
28) Stores actually shut on Sunday.
29) Locals you meet can name the "All Blacks'" player faster than you can name the "Seven Dwarfs."
30) The ice cream is homemade, the berries are hand-picked, and most of what's on your plate is local and seasonal.
31) The honking car that's passing you is thanking you for pulling over to the side, not flicking you off for being slow.
32) All the roads are well-marked and in English.
33) Locals here can correctly pronounce names like "Kakaka," "Whakatu" (hint: the 'wh' sound like 'f') and "Takaka" Hill without blushing.
34) You don't have to sign a waiver when you bungee jump, sky dive, or river board.
35) You can drink alcohol in public parks and drink wine at the movies.
36) The drinking age here is 18 years old.
37) Women here gained the right to vote in the late 1800s, over two decades before American women could.
38) The cows are grass-feed and free to roam, the chickens are cheery, and the sheep are afraid.
40)You can walk through the city park without being harassed by crackheads, homeless people, or young guys selling postcards.
41) "Feijomoa" is a type of fruit, not a profanity.
42) Restaurants have weirdly creative names like "Hell's Pizza" and "Toxic Coffee."
43) A road sign in the countryside by a pasture of sheep actually says "Hay Ewe!"
44) The alpine parrots here, though incredibly cute and clever, eat plastic and have been known to eat the sheep, too.
45) There's no inheritance tax or capital gains on real estate investments and basic health insurance is covered by the government.
46) When you tell people here that you're an American, their faces light up and they give you an enthusiastic "Congratulations!" on the 2008 election.

If you've answered 'yes' to 20 or more of these questions: You may be in England, Australia, or New Zealand.
If you've answered 'yes' to 25 or more questions: You're in Tasmania or New Zealand.
If you've answered 'yes' to 29 or more questions: Congratulations...You've made it to the Land of Sheep-Eating Parrots, Waterfalls, and Fiords!

Welcome to Nueva Zealandia!

Hoping you all are taking some time for yourselves to rest over the holidays....

much love,
Raquelita and Mama Chihuahua

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

December 10th, 2008

In tribute to my Mama's literary skills (one of these days I hope we write and publish a short story together), I thought I'd post one of the blogs she sent out to her own list from New Zealand. She so perfectly captured a magical experience we had with a wallaby at a Wildlife Reserve outside of Christchurch...
"The Magic of Marsupials" by Mama Chihuahua

The little wallaby sat quietly by the fence, munching on a strand of grass. He was close enough to pet. What a thrill to actually touch a creature I had only seen from afar in my Australian travels, here in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Then I saw the thing that protruded from his belly.

The poor thing had a claw sticking out his midsection. I suppose that wallabies might fight but this one had come off poorly, with a body part stuck into him.

The sticky-out thing was in the soft part of the belly. Righteous indignation roiled up within me that the park staff had not noticed such an injury.

Then the claw wriggled. And a tiny nose appeared. Then a face, right beside the clawed foot. And the boy wallaby became a mama wallaby with the cutest little baby wallaby face, foot beside its nose, looking at the outside world from the fur of the mama's belly.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. To hear about a marsupial pouch is one thing but to see something protruding right from the fur, no zipper, no dark interior, just a little alien looking out was so very cool.

The mama arched her wallaby back and pushed that baby pop! right out of her pouch and that baby landed on the ground, turned around and dived back into her belly, by golly. In the second I had to see this, the baby looked like a giant fruit bat, had no hair, was spindly and dived into her pouch, getting extra leverage from a leg push off the ground, and was invisible again. The mama never missed a beat chewing that strand of grass.

I was surprised, amazed, not sure I'd seen the baby at all and then it happened two more times, with the baby taking a bit of a walkabout before his head dive back into mama's handy home.

Rachel and I are home now. I'm checking my slides and re-living the good times in New Zealand, remembering the illegal vacation eating that I love so much and miss even more. I have only 15 pieces of toffee licorice left.

Things I love about New Zealand:

1. They speak English.

2. green-lipped mussels

3. fresh fish

4. They speak English.

5. It isn't Morocco.

6. fresh raspberries/boysenberries smashed up into yogurt in a cone.

7. The southern terrain looks real Lord of the Ring-y.

8. The really cute guy in Auckland.

9. I didn't fall down more than twice on the Routeburn.

10. They speak English.

Leaving Flagstaff makes me appreciate where I live all the more.....clean and fresh air, a surfeit of personal red blood cells acquired by living at 7000 ft., an abundance of hiking trails and riding vistas, cool university and teaching opportunities. and they speak English.

May your holidays be splendid.

Karen, Rachel and Steve

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tales of New Zealand II: Kicked in the Butts by Trek

November 28th, 2008
Fiordland National Park
South Island, New Zealand

"It's been raining for six hours. How much longer can it last?"
Elaine, trekker from Wales

Apparently quite a bit longer.

Trekking in the rain sucks. It's not being dirty that I dislike, it's the smell...that unique fermentation that occurs when one sweats for days beneath polypro long underwear and layers of oh-so-nonbreathable fleece and gortex, then crawls into a sleeping bag with another synthetic liner sweating throughout the night, and then gets pelted throughout the day by rainfall, dirt, and bugspray. It's an overpowering and disturbing smell...a mixture of sweat, citronella, and musk, with notes of something strangely sour.

Why Mum and I choose to shoulder 40 lb plus backpacks up over mountains in bad weather, lather ourselves in bug spray, subsist on dehydrated pasta, and then sleep in bunkhouses with snoring, equally smelly strangers baffles me. We continue to suffer from what I refer to as "Trekking Amnesia," in which several months pass by after said memories of torture dissolve away and are replaced with nostalgia and fond recollections of bonding.

Our second trek, The Routebourn, is famed for receiving over 200 inches of rain a year. I believe that we were there around 30 of them. One hut ranger we met says that there's a sure-fire way of predicting the day's weather in this part of New Zealand. "If you can see the mountains in the morning...then it's going to rain. And if you can't see the mountains in the morning...then it IS raining."

The landscape here, despite the rain and sheer physical torture, is stunning....shimmering in thousands of shades of green...and even more vibrant after a heavy rainfall. We hiked through beech forests filled with the calls of the Tui and Korimako, beneath waterfalls cascading down Yosemite-like mountain faces of granite, past wide open river beds that meandered past magnificent fields of grass and up above the treeline to alpine lakes and wind-swept mountain passes. The fog creeped along the mountain faces like slow-moving smoke as Keas flew overhead and chattered away. We even passed through a forest painted in moss...every rock, stick, and tree trunk dead or alive was covered in an emerald carpet of green...the dominion of witches, warlocks, and faeries.

Mom and I, though avid hikers, have been once again humbled (some might dare say "defeated") by trekking. Although we weren't walking many kilometers per day, the strenuous ups and downs of mountains trekking with heavy gear in bad weather took its toll on our legs, backs, and even more precious egos. It doesn't seem to matter what type of training you do for trekking (biking, hiking, or dance)...the only way to build up muscles or stamina for backpacking is to do it. Carrying 40 pounds of sleeping bag, pans, toiletries, camera, pasta, butter, cheese, crackers, and a first aid kit kicks my ass every time (and yet I continue to do it). We stumbled into camp on the third day looking like landmine victims and Mom swore on several occasions that she would NEVER AGAIN go backpacking without a llama, sherpa, or heavy meds.

On our last night as I was cooking our final pot of ramen noodles, I noticed a trim, good-looking, stylish German girl I hadn't seen before on the circuit.
I asked her where she'd hiked in from.

"We came from the other side of the pass. We're doing the whole trek in two days," she answered, a bit too cheerily.

"You must be tired!" I exclaimed, trying to hide my own personal devastation.

"No, not really," she shrugged. "It only took us 7 hours today."

I calculated that it had taken my mother and I ten hours between two days to cover the same terrain--not including our breaks. I couldn't imagine having done it all on the same day, arriving before dark, and feeling strong enough to cook pasta or look as good as this German girl really did. Was she human?

She looked at me through her stylish eyewear, "Excuse me but how long did it take you to come from the last hut?"

I thought of our slow start earlier in the morning, of getting drenched in the flooded waterfall, of our multiple bathroom stops along the trail and of our lunch on the lookout where I cried about my stepmom. All in all, it had taken us 5 hours since we had left.

"Four hours," I answered, rounding a little bit down.

"Four hours?" She raised her eyebrows with a mixture of dismay, surprise, and the kind of sad compassion one would give to a lesser, more disadvantaged being.

I thought later (as I always do after the fact) of telling her that trekking is not a race. That we take a lot of photos as we go. That I hadn't felt energetic that day and that neither Mom nor myself liked rushing our walks.

But all I said was "Yup. Four hours."

She shood her head with pity and turned her attention back to her pasta. We clearly belonged to two different camps of trekkers: The winners and the losers.

I sank down in my seat beside Mom...shocked that a human being near my age could so casually make that death march seem like a walk in the park. Maybe her pack had been ultralight. Or maybe she had loaded all of her heavy stuff in her boyfriend's pack (not that I would ever consider doing such a thing). Maybe they had had better weather for the crossing than we had while we had suffered through 12 hours of rain.

I hated this girl.

Mom and I talked about how tired we had been through the trek. We sat huddled in our corner, feeling reassured that we could share in each other's suffering. I looked through all the photos I had taken over the past few days. I thought of the mammoth-sized waterfall that we had survived crossing beneath and that had nearly blown us over...I remembered sharing tea with the hilariously funny English trekkers, of eating apples and cheese in the hut with a bunch of soggy strangers on a miserably wet day, and hearing the story about the Czech couple whose horse and baggage fell into the Amazon on a trip to South America. We'd even hung out with one of the hut rangers who'd proudly showed us his home brew stash (what else are you going to do out in the middle of the rainforest during a long winter?) that he could have made serious money on selling to parched trekkers.

That Couple over in the corner han't had any of those experiences. They definitely didn't have any of the cool pictures we had cause I doubt they stopped long enough to check out the scenery or talk to anyone. They did look damn cheery though over in their corner of the hut as they ate their pasta and giggled together.

The next day as Mom and I finished the last few kilometers of the trek the same couple passed us. Instead of throwing toilet paper at them and cursing their names I instead chose to remember all of the moments that Mom and I had shared over the past four days. I realized that it didn't matter how far ahead of us the couple was, Mom and I had our own journey to make. A bit slower of a journey but valid nonetheless.

When Mom and I victoriously finished the trek an hour later, a Kea parrot landed beside our packs and hung out with us for a while as if to congratulate us on a trek well done.

When the German girl and her boyfriend caught up with us again--they had added on a side hike for extra exercise cause the trek wasn't enough for them--she was bummed to have missed the parrot.

I was sad for her, too. ;)

May you all be enjoying your own paths...no matter the speed.

much love,
Rachel and Karen

P.S. Turns out we weren't total wimps after all. Just a day behind us, a young woman from Sydney stumbled off the main trail, blacked out, and woke up facedown on a ledge that fortunately, had broken her fall down the mountain face. Miraculously, she didn't have any major injuries...she was just a bit shaken up.
P.S.S. The day after we began our trek, the beginning part of the route was closed off when a storm we blew a tree over and damaged one of the bridge crossings. The date after we ended our trek, the high mountain pass we hiked over received snowfall.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tales of New Zealand I: New Zealand Dreaming....

Nelson, New Zealand
Monday, November 17th

Greetings from the South Island of Nelson....I'm seated snuggly between Mom and Steve at an internet cafe in the small town of Nelson (imagine a spring-like "Witches of Eastwick" nestled in a valley along the Pacific Coast) as a cool wind whips up a light rain outside.

It's been two weeks since Mama Chihuahua, Baby Love, and I have arrived in the Land of Sheep, Rugby, and Maori Culture. We've not a single regret since arriving that we chose to come here.

After an intense year at home, we've felt the relief of traveling to an English-speaking, first world country that doesn't require a phrase-book or an intolerable number of vaccines. It's been a welcome change from the type of travel that Mom and I usually take on.

From our first touch-down at the Auckland Airport where we were offered FREE! cups of hot tea and coffee (and weren't expected to buy a carpet as well) while we waited for our bags (which actually made it! Air N.Z. is my new favorite airline!) to every encounter we've had with Kiwis and other travelers we've been amazed at the authentic kindness and helpfulness of the New Zealanders. Even the taxi drivers (who appear to be higher educated than the average American) and bus drivers are kind (one pulled his bus over after we had descended a curvy mountain pass and watched over a sick passenger, offering his own personal water bottle after she threw up on the side of the road).

The roadsides are free of litter and perfectly kept-up. The trails are so well maintained you could probably take roller luggage instead of backpacks and have an easier time of it. And the merchants are so generally helpful they'll let you make local calls from their phone or give you directions anywhere you need (without sending you to their brother's carpet shop instead). Even the town of Nelson has dedicated "Night Ambassadors" who walk around downtown on weekend nights seeking out and helping drunk people make their way home safely.

It's just so dang...well, CIVILIZED. I think that several years of ago I might have been bored by the comfort here but this year it's the perfect balm for my rather fatigued traveler's soul.

Kiwi Highlights:

Highlights for me in the last two weeks have been a visit to one of my new favorite museums...the Auckland National Museum with a live Maori Dance Performance and four floors of incredible exhibits....featuring a replica of a 19th-century New Zealand town, a simulated pyroclastic flow (extreme volcanic eruption), and a 15-foot Moa bird.

Eating hot Turkish chicken kebabs and home-made honeycomb and chocolate gelato in downtown Auckland. Walking through the Auckland gardens with Mom after a hard rain and a full rainbow appeared behind us....

Eating smoked cheddar cheese, locally-made rhubarb/raspberry jam, and multi-grain bread with glasses of New Zealand-made Sauv Blanc as we watched the sun set from the linai at our friends Kevin and Jenn's in Nelson. Watching Mom and Steve race each other to finish off a bowl of steamed, fresh green-lipped mussels dipped in garlic butter sauce. Spotting an Orca Whale torpedoing out of the water off the coast of our Abel Tasman trek.

Taking a yelp-inducing cold shower during the third night of our trek beneath a eucalyptus tree with a handful of cheap dish soap that I found....it was the most invigorating shower I can remember since I had a hot bucket bath during the winter in Nepal! Walking barefoot across wet, sandy estuaries during low-tide on our trek and walking through the rainforest listening to the melodic call of the Tui bird (imagine a canary leading a symphony). Eating Edam cheese and sesame crackers on a white sand beach and watching blue-black, orange-beaked oyster catchers lead their week-old peeping chicks out to sea. Meeting other mothers and daughters along the way...a duo backpacking together, a mother and daughter who have a jade-carving business together and sell at the Nelson Market, and a mother and daughter who have a bead-making jewelry business together. (I've seen more mothers and daughters working together here than any other place we've traveled.) Running into two fiesty older women who were collecting whitebait (think of minnow-like sardines) for their morning scrambled eggs...

In all, it's been an incredible trip so far. We head to the mountains tomorrow for two days of hiking and exploring before Steve heads back home and Mum and I continue to Queenstown for our next trek, the famed Routeburn.

Thinking of you all and wishing you the best along the way-

much love,
Rach, Mama Chihuahua, and The Beloved Badger

Photograph by Genaro Molino of The Los Angeles Times
Gratitude from New Zealand: The Tea Fires

Nelson, North Island
New Zealand

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I've waited two weeks to write my first blog of our travels here in New Zealand...A part of me has just been reveling in feeling that this has been the first actually relaxing time we've had on a trip in a long time (especially compared to the trials and tribulations of Morocco) and now that I've caught up on news from home I have another reason to postpone stories of trekking and stuffing our bellies with locally-made edam and camembert.

We've recently learned about the Santa Barbara Tea Fire that has destroyed countless homes and I've felt humbled by the thought that several of our friends have had to evacuate themselves and their pets and most beloved possessions in a matter of minutes. One friend's family home was saved while another's was burnt to the ground right after she managed to evacuate herself and her dog.

It's hard to write about spotting Killer Whales and trekking through rainforest when I know that so many people have been in chaos this week. I am so incredibly grateful that Steve and I are safe and that our home and our cats are safe and in the good company of our girlfriend, Meredith.

This whole year up until this trip to New Zealand has felt heavy, like a time of transition and purging for myself and many of those whom I know and love. I have been looking forward to this trip for many months after a difficult year. For me personally, I've sold my condo in a short sale right in the midst of the Housing Crisis, my computer crashed, I sold the majority of my stocks in the spring, my car died on a road trip and I had to abandon it, my stepmum's cancer returned more aggressive than before, the Gap Fire consumed the hills above Goleta, and Steve and I lost several young friends to strange deaths over the summer.

And just as I thought that the year was coming to a peaceful end, the Tea Fire has taken Santa Barbara by complete surprise and ravaged the lives of many people whom we know. Many friends and family members have had similar ups and downs this year. My higher self has to believe that there's something happening on a cosmic level in the world, a purging and transition to a new world.

So instead of writing this first blog about New Zealand, I'd like to just reflect on a few things that I am grateful for from this year and celebrate the light during occasionally dark times:

The Top Seven Blessings That I Am Grateful For:

1) That I am in good health and sitting between two people whom I love dearly in a beautiful place on a warm sunny day: My Mamacita and Baby Love, Steve.

2) That our kitty kats are safe at home along with the pets of those we know.

3) That my uncle had a beautiful wedding with his fiancee, Teri, and that my cousin and her husband are happily pregnant back in Indiana (along with two good friends in Santa Barbara)!

4) That I have the incredible gift of music in my life....playing with Robby, Doug, Joel, and Billy in King Bee for eight years now!...and now have the opportunity to involved again with the very healing African Dance and Drumming Community through my good friends, Lisa and Budhi.

5) That I can afford to travel to such a beautiful place and continue to be transformed and rejuvenated by these travels with my Mother and now, with Baby Love.

6) That I'll be able to visit with my Dad and Wicked Stepmum and some of my family for a White Christmas in Indiana this year.

7) That when I return home, I'll be returning to one of the most magical, beautiful, and special places I know of and to a community of friends and "family" whom I treasure deeply in....Santa Barbara, California.

For those of you jonesing for some travel tales and sick of the touchy-feely sentiments, stay tuned, I will be writing again soon.

All my love and gratitude to each of you. I hope that you are all safe, happy, and healthy and, that if you are experiencing your own 'dark' times, that you're able to celebrate the light that you do see in your lives.

much love,

P.S. On a more political note (please stop reading here if you come from a red state) I have to add that I am also supremely happy that the popular winner of the presidential election was the victor of the presidential race.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"Vignettes From Morocco"

The colors of the Sahara are sublime at sunset and sunrise...

I've finally finished editing several thousand photos from my trip earlier this year to Morocco. Here is a short selection of a few of my favorite slices of Moroccan culture and landscape. Although Morocco was one of the tougher trips Mama Chihuahua and I have had in the past several years of our travels, I will say that working on these photos has helped me redevelop my appreciation for the textures and sensations of all the things which I did enjoy about this part of North Africa...the tang of spices, the amber cast of the Sahara at sunset, the sinful creaminess of homemade pistacchio ice cream, and the chaos of the Djemaa El Fna at dusk.

"A civilization rich in types and models unchanged for centuries, ... But that it has survived until our own times, that we can see it, we can touch it, we can mix with its people, is a miracle that never ceases to astonish."

Andre Chevrillon, Marrakech dans le palmes, Paris, 1920.

This was an incredibly majestic and surprising set of Roman Ruins in the North of Morocco at a World Heritage Site...gorgeous in the late afternoon light-

The salads in Maghreb are surprisingly refreshing....

Riding the train from Fez to Marrakesh with a group of young Moroccan women returning home...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

July 24th, 2010
Santa Barbara, California

Mother Daughter Photo Shoot
Ginny and Mary Howard

"I love my mother as the trees love water and sunshine - she helps me grow, prosper, and reach great heights."
~Terri Guillemets

I still remember when my Mother and I were photographed for her 60th birthday. We had put the photo shoot off for years hoping to be in better shape, to be toner, thinnner, younger and so on. Then we realized that it may never happen. We weren't getting any younger and there would always be something that we didn't love about ourselves. The most important element was rejoicing in the now of our relationship and loving ourselves body and soul whatever age. Now of course, when I look at the photos I think of how courageous we were to have the photos taken and, of course, I think I look wonderful!

It's truly a special treat to be in front of the camera and a truly magical process to share it with your mother.

How I love to photograph women! Especially mothers and daughters. I'm very close with my own mother and our relationship--through good and bad--has shaped so many of the relationships I have with people close to me. To me the bond between mother and daughter is especially indelible...our roles often juxtaposing throughout our lives. We begin as daughters and occasionally take on the mother role with our own mothers then settle into a comfortable sisterhood during the best times in our relationship.

I was contacted by Ginny Howard through a mutual friend. She was drawn to my style of portraiture and wanted to treat herself and her mother to a 60th and 80th birthday present! Her mother was an absolute sweetheart and a very good sport. When I arrived, she had no idea that Ginny wanted to have "intimate" portraits taken but Mary tentatively and courageously stepped up to the plate. By the end of the shoot, I could see in her eyes that she had had begun to trust me more. I'm so happy with how these beautiful women "showed up" in these photographs and for the photo shoot.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

June 28th, 2010
Mer's Bridal Shower!

Thankyou to those of you who were able to make it on Sunday! It couldn't have been a more beautiful day between the gorgeous weather, delicious food, and beautiful energy that you each brought. I look forward to continuing the celebration together this fall with Meredith and Tim!

Enjoy the slideshow...if you'd like any of the photos, you can click on "View Gallery." Once in the gallery you can view the pictures. In the upper lefthand corner of the picture will be an option to "download photo." You can also download all of them at once.

Much Love, Rachel

P.S. Mer~ I thought you'd really get a kick out of the song I used! ;)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Review of Hollywood Film, "Rendition," by New Line Cinemas
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Set in Morocco, North Africa

Although watching torture scenes of a husband and father at a far-away prison in North Africa isn't usually at the top of my list for things I'd most like to do on a Friday night...I have felt immensely curious about this new form of state-sponsored terrorism. A couple of years ago in an Amnesty International Magazine, I read about one German man's experience of "extraordinary rendition" at the hands of the CIA (kidnapped, tortured, and humiliated before being dropped off in the middle of nowhere on a country road in Albania...how's that for a European vacation?).

Post 9-11, it's truly incredible to see a Hollywood film bringing such a heavy and clandestine operation to the big screen and it's evident that award-winning director, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), has done his research on the subject. Often, films can oversimplify the mess that is war and propaganda but "Rendition" gloriously succeeds in humanizing all of its key characters--from the overbearing Muslim prison warden who oversees the "interrogations" to the senator's aid who is pulled between saving his career and aiding his ex-girlfriend's struggle to track down her husband--and their struggles to fight for their loved ones.

Basically, the film centers on an Egyptian-born American engineer (Greencard) husband/father who doesn't make it back home from a business trip in South Africa. His wife (Witherspoon), pregnant and distraught, soon discovers that the government--which claims he never boarded the flight--is lying to her. Meanwhile, a city in Morocco (shot in Fez and Marrakesh) is being torn apart by recent "terrorist" attacks by fundamentalist Muslim groups and a young, green post-traumatic stress CIA agent (Gyllenhaal) is placed in charge of "overseeing" the Egyptian-American's secret torture. Throw in a ruthless Muslim prison warden, a cruel and ambitious CIA-linked politician, and a young Muslim girl falling in love against the wishes of her oppressive father...and you've got ample fuel for tension.

From the very beginning, Rendition is gorgeously shot and pays special attention to develop its characters' needs and desires. The dialogue is impeccably-written and authentic and the casting is spot-on. One of the greatest treats was to see both Muslims and Americans human and flawed in their own individual ways.

In its final scenes, Rendition is haunting and compelling in showing how through the process of "hunting" down terrorists--often innocent people with families-- we are creating victims. Often, the chosen "jackals" or interrogators will torture until prisoners are compelled to "confess" to relieve themselves of unerring pain and torture. One man advises a growingly dubious special agent (Jake Gyllenhaal),
"We have a saying in Morocco, if you beat your woman every day and you don't know why, then she will." Gyllenhaal's reaction is priceless.

The film also pokes fun at the U.S. government's repeated denials of institutionalizing torture. Gyllenhaal--high on opium and deeply troubled by the week's events--confesses in a phone conversation to his supervisor (Streep), "This is my first torture."
"The United States," hisses Streep, "DOES NOT torture." Although it's cliche, one can't help but be amused by her venomous denial.

If you do rent this movie, make sure to take an extra bit of time to view "Outlawed," a documentary on victims of rendition that is included in the special features section. If you had any doubt that rendition is taking place, this will be the final nail in the coffin. It will be well worth your while to listen to a few stories of men who have been "kidnapped," transported from prison to prison, tortured, and held for months and years without any legal representation or access to a court or contact with their families.

Wake up. This stuff is truly scary.
Check out the American Civil Liberties Union article on Rendition.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Infidel: Looking for Asylum In A Country Near You"
A review of controversial Dutch-African activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali's memoir

"If you are a Somali woman alone," Hirsi Ali remembers her devout grandmother's words, "you are like a piece of sheep fat in the sun. Ants and insects crawl all over you, and you cannot move or hide; you will be eaten and melted until nothing is left but a thin smear of grease." In Somalia, a woman is nothing without a brother, father, or uncle to protect her. She is vulnerable and powerless…nothing without her family or clan's honor.

After a recent and conflicted trip to my first Muslim country—see my blogs on Morocco--both my mother and I have been truly curious about the life of a woman behind the veil. As a writer and photographer, I want to say that we were respected as women and that the Western stereotypes of oppression that we have of Islam are overinflated. I'd like to say that my first experience in a Muslim country was a pleasant one. But I can’t. Ever since our trip, I’ve been struggling to walk the line between hasty judgment and overly-exagerated moral relativity.

That said, Hirsi Ali’s memoir was like a sharp shot in the arm that shook me out of my politically-correct stupor. She’s a vibrant and courageous woman in an era when religion is more politically-charged than ever before. The first Muslim woman to be elected to Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali quickly became known for her vocal criticism of Islam through various public interviews, editorials, and an inflammatory documentary--Submission--she made with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (think of an irreverant, Dutch version of Michael Moore) depicting the Quran's treatment of woman. Shortly afterward, Van Gogh was brutally stabbed to death in broad daylight by a Muslim man. Speared on his chest was a religious letter condemning Hirsi Ali’s life as well. She has been in hiding ever since and opinions of her are mixed ranging from the belief that she’s a hero—Time Magazine has named her one of the "100 Most Influential People of 2005"-–to claims that she is a thoughtless neoconservative intent on gaining fame and stirring the political pot for her own selfish aims.

Whatever your political beliefs, it’s difficult not to be pulled into the story of her life’s struggles or to not feel the slightest nudge of compassion for a woman growing up in a culture of violence and oppression.

Infidel follows Hirsi Ali’s vivid childhood spent between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. She grows up beneath the heavy hands of her traditional grandmother and a mother who was often abusive. She experiences excision--or female circumcision--as a teenager when her mother was away on a trip--, a forced marriage she wasn't even present for, and escapes from Mogadishu before rebel forces take over the city and destroy most of her clan's members (her native country has since spiralled downhill).

Without giving away the course of events, she makes her way to the Netherlands, a country quite unlike her native Somalia. In her eyes, the Dutch extol the virtues of reason, practicality, and open-mindedness. She immerses herself in these new concepts and faces her questions of Islam. How can a religion evolve if its followers are not allowed to question? Why are woman expected to submit completely to a man and to Allah? She finds that as Holland is welcoming Muslim refugees, its Dutch citizens' are weary to criticize the values the religion conveys.
To her, the real root of social problems among immigrants in the Netherlands "is abuse, and how it is anchored in a religion that denies women their rights as humans."

Hirsi Ali has been called many names. I've spoken with many Dutch friends who dislike her immensely because they believe she's brought many problems upon herself. But Infidel is truly compelling. It is a vivid account of a woman struggling to recreate herself after having been conditioned in a religion and culture which makes her needs and rights the lowest possible priority. She doesn't mince words and, by the end, it is apparent that although she embraced fundamentalist Islam during periods of her early youth, she is no longer a fan of Islam.

Infidel is truly a fantastic and alarming look at one woman's life in Africa. This is a time to be compassionate and tolerant but also not to be blind. As Hirsi Ali says, "What matters is that governments and societies must stop hiding behind a hollow pretense of tolerance so that they can recognize and deal with the problem [of conflicting faith-based values and governments]."

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about women in Islam, the Middle East, modern politics, terrorism, and freedom of speech. It's truly compelling.

After reading Infidel, I watched several speeches and interviews that Hirsi Ali gave. Here is an excellent short speech she gave that I found on youtube and especially liked.

*If the video does not appear below, you may need to try viewing this in Firefox or Internet Explorer. Blogger is having problems with Safari and embedded videos. You can also view the interview on Youtube.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Tulum, Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula)
"Mid Thirties Wanderlust Crisis"

Is it possible that a self-professed adventurer could actually be sick of travelling?
How is it that I am with the love of my life in a tropical location with gorgeous views of the Caribbean, enough sun to melt Greenland´s ice caps away, and an agenda-less week and actually yearning to be home in Santa Barbara with a hot shower, my kitty kats, my laptop, and endless access to wi-fi. Hell, I have friends who'd give their left pinky to be here right now on 'vaction' in a place like this.

Yet I'm hot, sticky, and covered with so many bug bites that my upper back looks like a Braille version of "Beowolf." Slathered in a potent concoction of citronella bug juice and cheap candy-scented sunblock mixed with sweat, I've been grumpy until tonight. Annoyed by the sand that's been blowing into our cheap, sand-floor bungalow...the fact that our hotel doesn't even have the pride to repair our broken windows and instead replaces them with ripped netting....never cleans the communal shower or toilets....and has the greedy audacity to advertise its "flotation chamber" which we later learn doesn´t actually have any water at all! Are you kidding me?! Why not slap a slab of butter on a waffle cone and call it ´ice cream?´

I call it "Feco-Tulum" cause they offer you a bunch of crappy services, slap an "eco" label on it and then sell it to you at a premium. The showers are actually ocean water they pump out straight. They don't have electricity.

They should call it "Copal: Just like camping only sandier, windier, dirtier, and more expensive!"

So back to my original fear. Is it possible that I'm getting burnt out on travel? What if, instead of just needing a ´break´ from travel, I´m actually losing my edge and becoming soft. Becoming, dare I venture to ask, "high-maintenance?" I used to brag about being able to sleep on a windshield and camping out on rocks without sleeping pads. When I did use one I was fiercely loyal to a quarter inch pad that had been torn a bit and written on when it was separated from me on a river trip. Years later, I graduated to a thicker therma rest pad with ridges. I prided myself on never having a blow up pad. Now I have an awesomely comfortable inflatable and most times, I'd just prefer to return at the end of the day to my own bed.

So am I going soft? Like my sleeping pads....is it going to be a slow degradation of my adventurous spirit? Or is this just a phase? After travels to Indiana and back for the holidays and sleeping on a deflated air mattress on a cold slab of concrete beneath three dogs and a cat to riding for days across the Sahara in a mini-van to driving across the Mojave Desert twice to visit my Mamacita to braving the mozzies on Isla Holbox...I just feel, simply, tired.

The thought of another bus ride, another haggering for a taxi ride, another delayed plane ride in which "paperwork has to be completed" and we, the passengers, are grounded without food or water for two hours before we even take off....the thought of another afternoon spent dragging myself along a dirt street beneath a searing sun trying to find the best deal on a hotel room in a resort area where the peso has risen and the dollar has fallen....I think I´ve about had enough.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Isla Holbox, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Feels like I'm on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean...off-the-beaten-path island North of the Yucatan Peninsula...staying down the coast from a town made of dirt streets, golf carts instead of cars, Italian street-side cafes, and miles of blindingly-white sand set against a turquoise ocean. Staying with my boyfriend's family at a gorgeous, peaceful eco-resort that's solar run surrounded by fuscia blossoms of bougainvillea, Madagascar periwinkle, and a giant iguana named Oscar.

Falling into island-time...sleeping to the rhythm of palm fronds clicking against the sides of our hut, the whir of the ceiling fan, silhouette of our mosquito netting, the salty fragrance of hot tropical air, the tingle of cool saltwater on sun-baked skin, the softness of cotton sarongs against your legs, mango smoothies served in giant glasses, crushed mint mojitos at sunset, and aimless wandering down streets of pastel homes....peach, lemon, coral, mint, tangerine, carnation....swimming in cenotes (blueholes) where pirates once quenched their thirst....fingers dripping with mango juices...melting in your mouth like sun-ripened butter....

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Morocco Tales 7: "Pain and Couscous at 7,000 feet"

February 3rd
Recovering from long trek in the Atlas Mountains in Marrakesh...

After countless days weaving in and out of the markets, stuffing ourselves with soup and salad, and choking on the exhaust fumes of Marrakesh, Mom and I decided to escape from the city for a couple of days and go trekking in the High Atlas before Steve arrives in Morocco.

Our original plan was to go half way up Jebel Toubkal, Morocco's highest mountain, spend the night in a refuge there and return the following day. It's still the middle of the winter here, however, and much of Toubkal is covered in ice and snow, requiring crampons and mountaineering experience. Our guide Mohammed instead recommended that we take an alternate route to a nearby 'valley' and stay in one of the Berber villages there.

"We'd love to do a nice hike through a 'Valley!'" we said rather naively.

It sounded quite reasonable and refreshing to me and Mom....evoking serene images of walking along a cascading river, stopping for hot tea and biscuits, listening to the birds, and photographing the changing countryside. Although we absolutely love trekking around the world I now admit that there's some sort of amnesia that occurs shortly after all of our trips...where we forget how the word "hill," when used by either a highland local or any author of a Lonely Planet trekking guide (those bastard sandbaggers!) actually translates into enormous mountains we'd never attempt climbing at home, where "three-hour walks" translate into five hour-long grueling climbs uphill, where we forget how cold it really is to sleep in January at high altitude in buidings without heat on old mattresses beneath used blankets wearing fleece hats and long underwear as a bitter wind blows through the cracks of a window, of how dirty your hands and nails become no matter how many handiwipes you use and blacken, and how tired your entire being is at the end of the day when you want to collapse in a heap of fleece clutching a cup of tea in one hand and a bottle of ibuprofen in the other.

But somehow, miraculously, we do forget, and we convince ourselves that a trek might be easy and relaxing.

Starting in the small village of Imlil (where all of the Jebel Toubkal summit attempts start from in the spring/summer), we made our way up through serene fields of barley and orchards of apple, walnut, and cherry trees. We stopped and ate freshly peeled mandarin oranges which Mohammed had bought in Imlil, munched quite blissfully on handfuls of fresh roasted peanuts and waved to a Berber woman who sat with her two children as their cows grazed in one of the fields. (Ahh, the happinesss of a fresh hiker's ignorance!) Below us, the mountains stretched out towards a low blanket of cumulus clouds, their west-facing flanks dusted with snow. The landscape opened up like an outdoor theatre and from our rocky perches, we could hear the cry of baby goats looking for their mothers to milk, laughter from kids playing, and the occasional truck transporting goods along the road to guesthouses stocking up for the spring trekking season. A few villagers worked fields of barley or cleared brush from new fields.

Still blissfully unaware of the trek ahead (Mohammed had told us that we only had a two-hour hike to the pass), we snapped photos of herds of goats scampering up the hillside above the river and soon the path became steeper and steeper. The setting was gorgeous....a warm winter sun in a nearly cloudless sky over a slope of pine trees giving off a sweet scent...evocative of the pine forests in Northern Arizona and the East Sierras of California.

We trudged onward, becoming quieter and more focused with every labored step, our legs and backs weary from our full backpacks. I hadn't hiked in over a six weeks and it usually takes a couple of days to break my muscles in to the endless hours of mountain trekking. Although I had brought a five pound first aid kit with me, I had somehow left the bottle of ibuprofen behind in Marrakesh. Mohammed kept telling us "another hour" for what seemed like an eternity but the views were so spectacular, beyond our expectations, that it was hard to complain. We were finally in the High Atlas!

Nearly three hours later, we reached the pass at over 7,000 feet. Like the passes in the Himalayas, a lone stone hut manned by a local Berber was situated on a ridge overlooking a staggering view of snow-covered mountains and Berber villages nestled on their slopes above a faraway river. It was so incredibly immense that its grandeur rivalled views we've had in Tiger Leaping Gorge (China) and on various treks in the Nepali Himalayas. It's difficult to compare the magnitude of this immense valley and mountain range with anything I've seen in the U.S. Although we were only at 7,000 feet, we were above the tree line and half of the mountain slopes were covered in sheets of densely compacted snow and ice.

For lunch, he served us rounds of Moroccan bread and a plate of fish, olives, and slices of a canned meat much like Spam only bright pink. I was so hungry and tired after lunch that I kept imagining that the muddy road we walked along was made of hot chocolate and that the half-frozen earth was fresh baked brownies, crumbling beneath my feet.

Mohammed kept pointing towards the end of the valley to one of the villages that looked as if it could be a part of another mountain range. We passed a man dressed in a jellaba and worn shoes walking a small herd of goats among the pastures...over small streams past a couple of men waiting with another herd of sheep, sipping their mint tea to ward off the cold. Now over five hours into Mohammed's "easy three hour hike," and with our village still across the immense valley, we begged Mohammed to take a short cut so we could arrive before we either passed out or got caught in the chill of darkness. We took a short cut and slid down icy slopes of hardened, refrozen snow, across a low river where rugs were hung to dry and back up into a village. Groups of kids ran in front of us eager to tell the family whose "gite" we were staying in that we were on our way.

We had the best couscous of our trip that night. One of the men who also guides out of this village, presented us with a plate of couscous big enough to feed eight to ten people. The couscous was moist and fluffy, the carrots, potatoes, and parsnips were all infused with the juices from the beef brochettes and various Moroccan spices like cumin, turmeric, salt, and fresh black pepper. After dinner, we drank freshly brewed chamomile tea, fragrant like a light perfume and utterly superior to any other chamomile tea I've ever tasted. Mom and I passed out under a pile of blankets wearing most of our clothes, fleece hats, and socks. I had completely forgotten how tiring hiking is in the mountains and knew I'd be in pain when at the end of the trek.

I was so tired and cold that night, I could easily have passed out with a cup of tea in my hands, perched against the wall wearing all of my long underwear, fleece, hat, and gloves. We ate by candlelight (literally one taper candle stuck in a used Fanta bottle) as the town doesn't have electricity and the generator was out.

The next day, we hiked again for nearly six hours and limped into town (I stubbornly refused to let Mohammed carry anything from our backpacks, including my camera gear). Mohammed had wanted to take us over another pass for our return trip the next day but he discovered that a local couple had recently attempted crossing it as well. Sadly, the man had fallen to his death along the icy slopes and his wife was in the hospital with a broken leg.

Just for masochistic kicks, we looked at our Lonely Planet guide to check out the miles we had hiked and if we had done at least three days' worth of hiking in two. I stopped reading when it said, "The hike from Imlil to Ouneskra is a gentle first day of hiking..." and slammed the book shut. The damn sandbaggers! I could just kill those sadist rats! (They must be the same writers who wrote all the guidebooks on trekking in China, Tibet, and Nepal.)

So why do we keep doing it? Amnesia, I suppose. That and the fact that it is always these "treks" (in every sense of the word) which yield the most vivid memories...Every view and experience is earned and every footstep magically rewarded with breathtaking views, sweet air, and blissful moments which catch us at unexpected moments (peeling oranges and sharing them with children, trying to catch baby goats, sipping spring water from tin cups). Every taste of tea and bite of bread is ten times more flavorful than any feast bought with money and cars in the city.

But I still would like to have a word or two with those trekking writers... :-)

Namaste and much love,
Rach and Karen

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tales of Morocco 666: "Traveling As A Woman in Morocco...The Good, The Bad, and the Rude"

January 29th, 2008
The craziness of Marrakesh, Djemaa El Fna

So it's about time I say a few words about women in Moroccan society. The short and the skinny of it is this: I have read that the past forty years have brought about incredible changes and opportunities for Moroccan women: voting rights, custody rights, inheritance, educational opportunities and so on. Many women now enjoy the opportunity to go to college and study abroad and don Western apparel.

That said, Morocco is still a man's world. Everywhere we've traveled, the male species dominates the landscape. It is men who are the taxi drivers, the business owners, men who pray in the mosques, men who are the cooks in the food stalls, the merchants in the carpet stores, the emloyees at hotels and internet cafes. It is men who are smoking cigarettes and drinking "Berber Whiskey" (otherwise known as some seriously caffeinated mint tea) in the streetside cafes. It is men hanging out in the restaurants and boys who play soccer in the alleyways.We have had very little opportunity to meet women here. I can count on my hands the few women we have seen who were involved in the economic sectors of working class society: a women making bread for us this morning on our street, a women at our hotel in Marrakesh, two women working at two internet places I've seen now, one female waitress. All of the cleaning staff at our hotels have been composed of women and we were told on no uncertain terms by one manager when we requested that our shower drain be fixed, that it was for the maid to solve, as it was "woman's work."

We did meet two young, Westernized Moroccan women on our train to Marrakesh who wore quite stylish clothes and were savvy travelers. They'd both spent many years living in Europe and had returned for work in Morocco. I asked them if they noticed any differences between being women here and in Europe. They said, they didn't notice any differences at all.

If you ask me, I think that's a load of s**t.
While upperclass Moroccan women may be enjoying the new opportunities that the 21st century are bringing them, I think that the newest liberties women have won in this country affect the working class last. Most women in the countryside and much of the cities, are limited to a narrow range of jobs and roles. I believe that, with time, all of these conditions for women will improve.

What It's Like To Be A Foreign Woman Here (under 50)

The last 24 hours have been challenging for both Mom and I. We had heard such a wide range of experiences among people who have traveled to Morocco about how women travellers are treated, everything from "Moroccan men are the most aggressive in the world" to "You won't have any problems at all; Moroccan men have changed in the past twenty years and they won't bother you at all."

As always, the truth lies a bit in between. We've met many incredibly helpful and respectful men over the past two weeks since we arrived...from random acts of kindness on the train to men at our hotels who have given us advice about where to find the best beans and chicken brochettes in all of Oarzazate.

That said, unfortunately, there are still several assholes around. It seems like last night we must have been wearing "asshole perfume" because we seem to have attracted every one of them in this square kilometer.

Granted, we're in the heart of the crazy swirl of the city: the medina where thousands of Moroccans and That said, Mom and I are dressed respectfully, head to toe, in long skirts, long-sleeved shirts and jackets, scarves, minimal make-up and jewelry. I could easily pass for a Berber if it weren't for my Western dress and water bottle. (Most women here wear headscarves, some have Western dress with jeans and stylish leather boots, and a rare few are completely covered in Burkas).

*(On an hourly basis, occasional remarks are made towards me of "you're so beautiful" or "where you from," are made to me which I've become quite good at ignoring. But every now and then, the attention becomes harassment and Mama Chihuahua and Hija de la Chihuahua are born!)

One completely tweaked guy came up to us and tried to push hash on us in a smarmy kind of way, another guy shortly thereafter started following me and saying lascivious things in Spanish (they think that they're awfully clever guessing that I must be Spanish) until I turned and told him off in Arabic. Mom backed me up when she caught up with me and still he mocked both of us. Screwing his face up and imitating us, but at least he left us alone.

A bit later in the night as we headed into a small local shopping mall, a Moroccan man got much too close to me and start whispering things in my ear. I completely snapped.

"Sir Fhalek!" I shouted angrily.

It was such an instinctual reaction to having my personal space invaded more and anger at being treated like I'm a prostitute. Mom caught up with me and stepped towards him saying tersely, "What do you think you are doing?! What do you think you are doing?!"

What was amazing (and continues to be so) is that, although it's apparent she is my mother, he didn't show her or me any respect by backing down or apologizing.

It only made him angrier and more aggressive. The three of us were standing toe to toe with each other in the middle of this mall. I was seething that he could be so thoughtless and rude and aggressive and clueless. I could also sense that one of us was about to step up the confrontation another notch and it was on the edge of becoming an actual physical brawl.

Mom took a step towards him to let him know that Mama Chihuahua isn't about to take any s**t from some asshole Moroccan dude, but instead, she misjudged the distance and stepped on his feet, inflaming him more. His energy became more hostile and he started towards her.

Mama still didn't back down and I remained there as well. I so wanted to just punch him in the guts. I was so pissed off and high with adrenaline and the empowerment of anger.

By some miracle, he backed off and slunk away into the bowls of the mall. We watched for him the rest of the night. My heart rate was racing and I was still upset when we got home, my mind racing with so many questions.

"How can a man treat a women like that?" Do they think that women like to be talked to like we're prostitutes? Would he ever treat a Moroccan women like that?

I woke up completely inflamed with the empowered adrenaline that only intolerant an extreme case of PMS can bring on. I sat in bed imagining the ways I could crack his face over my knee, jam my foot into his groin, or just humiliate him in front of a large crowd of his peers.

Mom later said that she could tell people were watching and that she noticed an older Moroccan man who looked as if he was preparing to intervene and possibly help us.

The thing is, I know that there are jerks everywhere. I know women get harrassed all around the world. We just happen to have stumbled on to a denser concentration of assholes last night on our walk through the medina.

Being here with Mom has made me reflect a lot on what it is to be a woman. The harassment I would get here would be a lot worse if I were alone. It's a little less when I am with her. When Steve arrives (which we look forward to on all levels, aside from his wonderful companionship!) we know that a lot of this harassment will lessen.

Still it makes me think of women around the world and how, if I have a son one day, I'm going to god***m teach him to respect his mother, sisters, and the women of the world.

So wherever you are, feel fortunate that you know good men who treat women well!
I know that we will continue to meet wonderful people here, both men and women. Morocco, like the world, I believe, is full of them.

I'm just grateful to be a woman who knows my own worth and I hope to, in whatever way I can, help other woman realize and fight for their own worth, too!

And for those of you who have read this far, yes, we are safe and yes, we will be fine! Please don't worry about us- Plus my knight in shining armor (or at least lots of fleece and a big backpack) will be arriving to relieve us soon.... :-)

Rachel and Karen


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tales of Morocco 5: "Riding Camels in the Sahara"

January 27th!
Ourzazate, Morocco

Trip Into the Desert and Gorges of Southeastern Morocco

After many days touring the imperial cities of Morocco, Mom and I agreed that it was time to finally see more of the Moroccan countryside and the Sahara...a long cherished dream of mine! We booked a three-day excursion (the cheapest three days of our trip so far...only $125/person including everything but lunch) with a backpacker organization to travel through the desert, gorges, and see Erg Chebbi, the only true moving sand dunes of the Sahara in Morocco.

We were fortunate to be with an incredibly jolly group of young Kiwi girls (chronically giggly, under-dressed for the weather but ever jolly), Argentians, two young Italians who were constantly either drinking coffee, chain-smoking, or drinking beer and snapping photos and making jokes, two Americans (only the second Americans we've met here in over two weeks), an Englishman, and a Japanese girl. Mom was the oldest in the group and much respected by the end of our time together. Traveling through remote areas, sharing food together, and camping are a bonding experience for sure and after several days with them, our respect and admiration for them all was only heightened! Traveling seems to create accelerated bonds in ways much more different and intimate than meeting people in our 'normal' lives.

It is true that to know a country, you must really see the landscapes which shape its people. (The landscape is so stunning and magnificent here that several films have all been shot here....Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Kundun, Mummy 1 and 2, Jewel of the Nile, The Ten Commandments, and so on. One movie studio near here has tours of the movie sets and just recently wrapped up a new BBC series based on "The Passion.")

Although we've seen the medinas, mosques, and souks of some of Morocco's famed cities, we have been even more moved by it's incredibly changing landscapes....we journeyed over a high mountain pass onto a high desert plateau framed by several different mountain chains, driving up into gorges and valleys where magic-castle looking villages sprung up from the landscape matching the rocks in gritty sandstone textures and hues. At times, the rocks were a shocking Sedona red and would shift into more subtle shades of cinnamon and toast, more reminiscent of the Big Bend landscape on the Texan/Mexican border. In some places, the sandstone had worn down into giant phallic shapes like the whimsical hoodoos in the Moab, Utah area.

Within these valleys and gorges rose small Berber villages (although Morocco is considered an Arab country, it is largely Berber influenced, over 50 percent of Moroccans proudly claim Berber heritage and many speak one of the several Berber dialects as their first language...some of the most handsome men and women we've ever seen...a mixture of Arab, Berber, and African colors and features). Between small river-irrigated fields of wheat, alfalfa, brussel sprouts, and occasional mint and garlic patches, were orchards of trees and palms. I can only imagine how the valleys burst with color in the spring when the trees are in full bloom!

During the days here, the sun can be mercilessly intense but as soon as the sun descends beyond the canyon walls, we have to wrap ourselves up in layers of long underwear, fleece, and warm hats. The nights are brutally cold. The desert is a land of such contrasts, but especially in its temperature ranges.

On the first night in Dades Gorge, along a small mountain-fed river...which is the lifeblood of these agricultural communities...we feasted on moist and fluffy couscous, bowls of hot soup, and fresh orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. We discussed the merits of Fanta and how much the Kiwi girls preferred it to any other soft drinks when they travel. They told us stories of riding with goats on a local bus in Mozambique, of getting in mud fights in the rainforests of Kenya, and getting chased by a drugged-out guy who kept squeezing his fingers together saying, "Come here my babies!"

Mom and I were much inspired by the Kiwi clan and how cheerful they always were, they never complained of the cold, being sleepless, hungry, or irritated by harassment. Ellie--who was hospitalized for something like Malaria when she first got to Kenya--has a dream of going to medical school and returning to Africa to work in under-privileged areas (pick about any place in Africa and that'll do it). Mom couldn't imagine the fortitude that their parents must have when they hear their stories from abroad. We're always inspired to see other women taking risks and seeing the world with such idealism and positivity.

Sands of the Sahara

After Dades Gorge, we made our way towards the Algerian Border near the frontier town of Merzouga. Located just outside of Merzouga are the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, which to me, represented to the beginning of the Sahara which I've imagined for years (although not all of the Sahara is composed of sand and dunes it's what I've most associated with this vast desert).

As we made our way across the desert plateau through these small towns, we began to see small groups of camels foraging for vegetation and beyond them, the sands of the Sahara rising up out of the earth like undulating masses inflamed in the setting sun. I was so excited to finally see them that I was beside myself.

We drove off-road for quite a while to a camp where our camels awaited us to take us deeper into the desert. I absolutely loathe horse-back riding but there's something so magical about being on a camel, they're such other-worldly creatures, the way their knees bend backwards, the way they can crane their necks backwards to watch you like menacing dragons, and the way their feet settle into the sand with each step like bags of pudding spilling outward....I just love them! Many of us had been on camels before except one of the Kiwi girls who yelped as she was pitched forward and back quite severely when they camel 'uncouched' or stood up (it's quite a strange way of standing up much unlike anything you can be prepared for and requires good balance to stay on).

We sang and bantered with one another as we made our way across the sands of the Sahara. The sun was setting and the sands and sky became a brilliant deep rust and turquoise, the shadows deepening with each minute. The sands are so incredibly gorgeous, undulating like the soft curves of a woman's body, always changing in light but never in texture.

That night we arrived in a small Berber camp circled by camel-hair tents. When darkness set in, the sky was brilliant with stars and a few satellites. We all hiked up one of the dunes and several of us witnessed a huge shooting star, sparkling and dissipating like a breathtaking firework. Mom and I sat there blissfully in the dark on the warm sand which now covered our hands and settled into our clothes, below us were the content sounds of camp, a few young children playing and laughing with their parents from a nearby Berber family, birds singing after dusk, and the clanking of pots from our 'kitchen' where they were preparing dinner for us. I could have stayed there for days just watching the sands, walking with the camels, and studying the sounds and smells of the desert, its ever-changing moods.

Our Berber guide, Ali, (a remarkable and rather entertaining polyglot who kept us entertained for hours that night) called us all down onto the communal carpet in between our tents. We wrapped ourselves up in thick blankets to ward off the cold. He and another Berber, Salim, brought out trays of the most perfect mint tea I've yet had, and Ali fashioned wonderful candle lanterns out of cut-up plastic water bottles filled with sand.

As we waited for dinner, we told each other riddles (Ali had about fifteen camel jokes that he consistently cracked himself up telling) and I inevitably fell into 'guide' mode and recruited them all to play one of my favorite SBACO (Santa Barbara Adventure Company...how's that for a good plug, Mike?!) group-building initiatives, "This is a Stick, This is a Stone." Trust me, it's hilarious and great fun and very challenging with adults who all speak the same language, somehow, by some great miracle of patience and laughter, we managed to play it successfully and bust out in stitches in a group that included a Berbers, Italians (whose vocabulary was limited to Bob Marley and drug-related paraphenalia), Argentians, Japanese, and several ADD Kiwis. Great fun!

After an hour or more, Salim brought out baskets of Moroccan bread three huge 'tagines' (ceramic pyramid-shaped pots they cook meat and vegetables in) and directed us to eat in groups of five. I ate with the Italians and one of the Kiwis and without silverware, we dug our grubby hands into the steaming tagine dipping our bits of bread into a mound of saucy potatoes, carrots, and sinfully moist baked chicken with morsels that fell nearly fell off the bone. It was the most delicious tagine I've had in all of Morocco, the potatoes and carrots subtly infused with various spices which seemed to mingle together in a way you couldn't seperate them out ('Was that cumin or cinnamon?' 'Was that pepper or curry?). Whatever it was, we all agreed that it was one of the best meals any of us had enjoyed in Morocco. The three tables competed to see who could finish their tagine first but the Englishman and Kiwi girls won as they practically licked their tagine clean, vying for the last pieces of bread.

After dinner, Salim and Ali made a fire for us from firewood they'd brought on one of the camels earlier that day. Ali played Berber drums (ceramic with a sheep skin and intestines used as the sinew to tie the head to the base) and sang songs to us all as we curled up in blankets by the fire. One by one, we trailed off to bed until only Claire and Damien were left...they never slept that night, they played drums, sang with Ali, and climbed the dunes to watch the full moon passing over our camp.

We slept on the sand that night beneath heavy blankets under camel hair tents. We rose early in the morning when it was still dark and frigidly cold and rode our camels out onto the dunes to watch the sun rise. Above us, the full moon was dimming in the sky but still a presence.

A little after our time on the dunes, we learned that our entire Berber meal had been cooked over a fire fueled by camel dung collected from around our camp. So thanks to some Berber ingenuity and good, dry camel dung, we had one of the best tagines in Morocco and I will continue to dream of that night and of that meal.

When we left the dunes, we were both fatigued and overjoyed from the experience. My hair still smells, several days later, like sand and woodsmoke. I pleaded with Mom to stay a few more days out in the desert before returning to Marrakesh again. We had the group drop us off in the desert town of Oarzazate so we could enjoy the desert and tranquilness that only wide open spaces can bring (mostly enjoying hot showers, the sun, and new pastry shops).

Everyday, Morocco seems to unfold and we discover another one of its infinite layers. In a week, Steve will be joining us for time in Marrakesh and then journeying to the Coast, which has been influenced by the Portuguese.

My love to all of you and hoping that some peace finds you in whatever wonderful form it may come!

much love,
Rachel and Karen


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tales From Morocco 4: "'Slow Travel' in Marrakesh"

January 22nd
Marrakesh, Central Morocco

We've taken an eight hour train to the center of Morocco, the famed city of Marrakesh where Morrocans, Africans, and European foreigner mingle at dusk throughout the Djemaa El Fna, or central plaza in the Old Medina....it's a whirlwind for the senses, a mixture of Africa, Arabia, and a little bit of Las Vegas.....a central plaza filled with thousands of people wandering among stalls offering lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs hot off the grill, bowls of tomato-based 'harira' soup (a specialty soup traditionally drunk to break Ramadaan), loaves of fresh bread, cured and spiced olives, dried apricots, raisins, dates, and nuts, and fresh-squeezed glasses of orange juice and grapefruit (for fifty cents).

Throughout the plaza are crowds (almost all men) gathered around acrobats, musicians playing drums and flutes, monkey trainers, storytellers (where even the men dress up in the female roles) and snake charmers. Meanwhile, young boys walk donkeys by loaded up with goods and both locals 'and visitors alike pay to be taken throughout the plaza by horse-drawn carriage.

Taking On 'Slow Travel'

We've found an incredibly reasonable restaurant that looks out over the Djemaa El Fna and you can sit for hours just watching the theatre unfold. Between Mom and I both getting each other sick on and off with a flu/cold and all the incredible action unfolding around us, we've found little need to hurry ourselves to see a bunch of tourist sights. We've been quite content going to bed around 1 or 2 am (the medina really seems to come alive late at night...probably because most of the year it's so dang hot here...January is the perfect month to come!) and getting out and about by noon or after just to wander through the streets and enjoy all the moments which magically seem to present themselves to us at any moment (sharing soup with a cool Belgian couple, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice from a vendor), warding off beggars, watching the variety of jellabas and Western dress worn by Moroccan woman as the sun descend over the Djemaa).

We've met some great travelers (only one American so far in over ten days!) and met an especially charming young Dutch couple from Den Hague. The past two nights we've been having great fun eating dinners of baked chicken, soup, and couscous, the strolling through the medina to our favorite gelato shop and feasting on small bowls of the most divine pistachio and chocolate flavored ice cream you could imagine....in addition to visiting the french pastry shops where we order all sorts of strange little cookies covered in sesame seeds and confectioners sugar. Travel can be rough sometimes. Then we end the night with pots of mint tea (that only seems to be caffeinated when you order it late at night!) and have great in-depth talks about Islam and the changing role of women, all the places we want to travel to, our favorite ice cream flavors, gun control in the US, and so on....

Most of the foreigners we've seen are couples and it is rare that we see two women traveling together. I was harassed twice as much in the plaza when I walked with Sophie (who is in her twenties and closer to my age) than when I walk with my mother. We've run into one sweet English girl who came here by herself for a week and has found it to be a quite draining experience. You get constant attention as a woman but if you're with someone, you seem to find a way to deal with it and ignore people at the right times. I can't imagine being here by myself, not fun at all.

We've been researching trips out into the desert on camel back and to a couple of world heritage sites but transport in those rural areas is either really tough and slow or incredibly expensive by private guide. We've found a local agency that takes small groups of backpackers to some of the places we'd like to see (riding on camels and visiting Berber villages) and will be heading out for a three-day trip tomorrow that doesn't break the pocketbook. Morocco can be incredibly expensive but we've managed to keep our costs down by haggling and taking our time to decide on transport and ward off faux guides.

And so, we head to the Sahara tomorrow! A long-awaited dream for me! I have a feeling, like Morocco, it will be very different from what I've imagined-

Thank you to all of you for your emails, I'm slowly reading them and it may take a while to respond but I am elated to know so many people are following our travels from home- Thankyou so much for your messages!

much love and Hamdolillah!,
Rachel and Karen