Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Fez, Morocco

For the true connoisseur of medieval labor practices, Fez is a hard place to beat. You can watch 12-year-old boys running metal lathes, hauling inhuman loads and spinning miles of thread for lovely Berber rugs. Or like me you can assuage some measure of guilt by giving one five bucks to show you the sights. Mohammed el Cous-cous, as he liked to call himself, led me through the maze-like old city of Fez el Bali with a pleasant tourist patter. Eventually we found our way to the highlight of any city tour; the leather tanneries where jobs have been passed from father to son for centuries.

You smell the place long before you actually see it. Cow, goat and occasional camel hide are all brought dripping to the tannery, where vats filled with a fragrant brew of cow piss, pigeon shit and lime await. Once rendered suitably soft and hairless, they are hauled to nearby vats for dyeing. Henna for brown, saffron for yellow and poppies for red. Men stand waist deep in the mix, stirring and stomping the skins for a week or more. For their trouble, the men earn as much as $15 a day, a princely wage at local standards. All the while tourists peer down from surrounding balconies, smirking while holding their noses, pointing cameras at the spectacle below.

I spent the better part of two days photographing here, walking among the men and vats carrying $10,000 worth of cameras and I was greeted with nothing but kindness, smiles and generous offers of kif. Why they didn't flay me alive, divvy up my belongings and turn my sorry carcass into a carry on bag I know not why.

Friday, March 3, 2000

Marrakech, Morocco

My unhealthy attraction to fire is well documented in family lore. My brother still delights in describing the time I set myself alight with gunpowder in 1977.

Since that time, I've tried to channel this obsession in directions that do not involve emergency room visits. Djema El Fna square lies in the center of Marrakech's ancient medina, and I joined the generations of tourists have come to watch snake charmers, story tellers and musicians perform. I thought it showed considerable restraint on my part to wait until dusk to go visit the fire-breathers.

Monday, February 28, 2000

Essaouira, Morocco

My Lonely Planet guide described the Atlantic Coast town of Essaouira as an undiscovered jewel, which is surely the travel equivalent of the kiss of death. The city ramparts looked unchanged since Orson Welles shot "Othello" here on a shoestring in the fifties, but an invading army of pudgy pink tourists in bad clothes had settled in for the long haul. I got up early to avoid the tour buses, and also to get a better seat in the Cafe Paris for my morning croissant and cafe au lait.

Before breakfast though, I watched the shadows cast by a line of palm trees on the old city's walls, and stood in one place, waiting for one more element to enter my frame. Then I went and had breakfast

Saturday, February 26, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

My trip to Casablanca seemed like a good idea, anyway. But warm sunshine and exotic locales always sound good in the middle of a Seattle winter. Visions of the luminous Indrid Bergman don't hurt, either. I knew the city's namesake movie was shot in a Hollywood backlot more than half a century ago, but the city's noise, crowds and grime still came as something of a shock.

My utter incompetence in both French and Arabic didn't help matters. Finally working up the energy to leave my hotel room, I walked the city's winding, dubiously signed streets in a jet-lag haze, on guard for threats both imaginery and real, and found my way to Place Mohammed V, a crowded plaza centered around a long dry fountain.

Amidst the henna stands and crowds of loitering men in shiny suits, pension-aged merchants sold sips of water from goat skins. It didn't seem like much of a living, but since they were the only ones who didn't shower me with abuse when I raised a camera, they were then only people I photographed that day.

Friday, February 25, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

Each morning, a thick blue-gray pall rises above the jammed streets and a stupendous din of car horns, diesel engines and whiny two-stroke moped builds into one continuous celebration of unmuffled internal combustion. While trucks and buses clog the streets, taxis, scooters and bikes all weave through the maze. Pedestrians cross at random and are clearly at the bottom of the food chain. It takes only a little while to figure out all the people on crutches.

Morocco has long hosted travelers and tourists. After the French were sent packing after independence, Paul Bowles and fellow Beat Generation writers descended on Tangier, and were duly followed by hippies stumbling though Marakesh in a pot-induced haze. Thirty years of package tourists in bad shorts and worse haircuts have followed, leaving a landscape littered with carpet shops, Coke signs and legions of sharp-eyed touts in pirated Nike wear. But oddly enough for such a tourist destination, just about everyone hates cameras. Both religious and cultural traditions frown upon recording a human likeness, though hospitality also remains one of Morocco's most distinctive national traits. You just never quite know which one will be encountered in any given situation.

After a few days, I feel like a jittery rodent in some sadistic Skinner Box experiment. The rat raises his camera…and he's embraced as a brother, invited home for dinner and offered full liberties with the family livestock. The rat raises his camera again and…. BWAAAAAAA!!!!! 8500 volts of righteous Arabic fury, with even the sheep baring teeth and hurling epithets.

No wonder my hair is falling out.

Thursday, February 24, 2000

Casablanca, Morocco

I am sitting in the worst cab on earth. Hurtling through pea soup fog at 120 km/hour in a godforsaken gypsy taxi with shot suspension, missing muffler. One lone wiper scrapes the windshield without a blade against the gloom. Pavement is visible rushing past my feet, while my ass sticks halfway through the backseat, and I'm shortly going to crawl the rest of the way into the trunk. At least I will die with my luggage.

The ink on my passport stamp had not dried before some tout grabbed my bags and seamlessly hustled me into this Mercedes deathtrap. I was supposed to know better, but 36 sleepless hours of travel slow even the keenest reflexes. In Africa, the slow and weak are always the first to fall. It's nature's way of tidying up the gene pool.

To my great surprise, I was duly dropped at my hotel door. A rancorous discussion regarding the bill shortly ensued, as per local custom, but since the police were just then hustling a prostitute down the hotel steps, a tactical retreat seemed to serve his long term best interests.

I have often said that you can go far in this world with nothing more than credit cards and a willingness to surrender all dignity. As a product of American public schools, I can barely speak English, and I know just enough Spanish to order beers and insult your mother. I can't even do that in French or Arabic. This stands me poorly in dealing with the realities of daily existence here in Morocco.

Somehow though, a mixture of sign language, goofy pantomime and the liberal application of a cartoon French accent propels me forward. Possession of a thick wad of Moroccan dirhams and a willingness to part with them doesn't hurt.

My first few days consist of little more than jolting awake at 3 a.m. in a jet lagged stupor, lying perfectly still for two more hours to mimic the death I would at this point cheerfully embrace. At first light I shower in water the color and temperature of yesterday morning's Earl Gray and embrace the dawn.

But Casablanca's embrace can be seem prickly, like hugging a chain smoking cactus who's leaning on the horn, speaking French, Arabic and Berber with equal ferocious passion and driving like a bat out of hell.

Thursday, January 27, 2000

Torres del Paine, Chile II

After a couple of days admiring Chile's Torres del Paine National Park from my rental car, it occurred to me that, with the sole exception of my left arm, I was no more tan than when I departed Sea-Tac.

I was in the land of fresh air, sunshine and precariously low ozone levels and by God I was going to have some color to show for it. I stuffed my carry-on backpack with sleeping bag, tent and cookstove. This left precious little room for cameras, food or a fleece jacket. But I perservered and eventually set off dangling clothing, cameras and tripod strapped on with duct tape and spare shoelaces.

The trail to the base of the Torres spires lies about five hours hiking in. If I'd looked more closely at my map, I would have noticed that 4.975 of those hours are devoted to relentless climbing. People who passed me were nice enough to ask how I was doing "Viejo y consado." Old and tired. Still, the skies remained clear and sunny and the top of my head turned a fine shade of pink.

Along the way, I hooked up with an amiably chatty Aussie hiker who convinced me to ditch my tent and hike up to the top for an overnight bivvie under the Torres' hanging glaciers. As soon as the sun passed behind the spires, it grew cold. We cooked dinner quickly under the light of our headlamps, and settled into our sleeping bags in a dubious shelter of a circle of rocks.

Patagonia is home to some of the worst weather on earth, with screaming winds and storms obscuring the mountains for weeks at a stretch. But for one merciful night, the skies were clear and calm and infinitely black, with the southern stars slowly circling overhead.

Monday, January 24, 2000

Torres del Paine, Chile

It's always an odd thing to finally arrive in a place you've dreamed of visiting for years. Like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, Chile's Torres del Paine stands as one of the world's singular places. I've long admired and coveted images of Patagonia's windswept mountains, and as I drove into the park after flying the 3,000 mile length of Chile and then driving six hours from Punta Arenas, I was not disappointed.

The weather was dodgy though, with howling winds and banks of clouds whipping in off the Pacific and squatting low over the mountains. With the sky still a dim twilight gray at midnight, I wasn't terribly optisimistic as I drifted off to sleep at the bunkhouse at Rio Serrano. But I set the alarm for 5 AM anyway.

All through the night, banks of lenticular clouds rolled out in the mountains' lee. In the morning, I was just about ready to hit the snooze button when I noticed a narrow band of clear sky along the eastern horizon. I sprinted to the rental car spilling gear through the parking lot, drove at immoderate speeds down the park's twisting dirt roads to find a viewpoint just as the first light of dawn hit the Cuernos rock spires.

The entire sunrise lasted less than three minutes before the sun entered thick clouds. And then I turned around, drove back to the bunkhouse and tried very hard to go back to sleep.

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Arica, Chile

As my jet approached the city of Arica along Chile's northern frontier, I could hardly miss the plume of inky black smoke trailing across the Atacama Desert. On the chance that I might get a nice shot of junkyard buttheads burning tires, I drove back a sketchy dirt road.

Coming up on a phalanx of grim-faced men with machine guns, I concluded this was more than your average garbage fire. The day before, Chilean drug police had boarded a cargo ship and found themselves the nervous custodians of nearly nine tons of cocaine, worth something like $600 million. Rather than tempt fate, they opted to burn it quickly before it grew legs and wandered off on its own.

Avoiding sudden movements and with my hands clearly visible, I slowly walked up and introduced myself. Since my Spanish vocabulary is limited to drink orders and maternal insults, neither of which seemed like a smart idea, I was happy to find an officer who spoke enough English to understand my plea for permission to photograph the conflagration.

Dozens of police cadets were lined up in a bucket brigade tossing bricks of cocaine into a bonfire. I did a little mental math and realized each of the two kilogram bricks was roughly equivalent to a Seattle condo. Chile's armed forces aren't known for a sense of humor, and it looks like I'll be renting for the foreseeable future.

Monday, January 17, 2000

Santiago, Chile

I came to Chile in search of scenic wonders and an end to my winter pallor. I found instead a country in the final throes of presidential electioneering.

Given the country's tragic political history, it seems a minor miracle that Socialist Ricardo Lagos was running for president and not lying in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Atamacama Desert. I wasn't particularly worried about how things might end this day, but I also vividly remember my only other encounter with Latin American elections, particularly the bit when Haiti's Ton-Ton Macoutes opened up with machine guns on my rental car.

So I casually drove out of Santiago and headed for the beach. Just in case. But the day came and went peacefully, until at sunset, the streets filled with cars and trunks blaring their horns and throngs of supporters waving flags, celebrating a decisive victory.

All night, Lagos voters danced and celebrated in the streets in one of the most joyful and inspiring displays of patriotism I've witnessed. I'm still cleaning the confetti out of my camera bag.