Thursday, March 30, 2017

Invisible in Morocco

The air feels cool on my pale skin as I emerge from the second class car into the first class one for which I've paid $17US to travel 300km from Casablanca to Fez on this Saturday in March. I take my place in cabin 5, alone except for a Moroccan man seated across from me at the window. He wears a charcoal business suit and a maroon and white checked shirt with the top button undone. His shiny black leather shoes are mere inches from mine, and he is wearing a wool coat despite the heat prickling my neck.

“Bonjour,” he says. “Bonjer,” I reply in my poor excuse for a French accent. He notices me stumble and asks, “are you from America?’

“Yes,” I admit. I tell him it's my first time in Morocco and he tells me I’ll be safe here, there is nothing to worry about. I try to respond in a way that makes him believe that I believe him, but I doubt I'm convincing. I haven't yet gotten comfortable in this foreign land, a solo woman traveller who can't speak either of the two local languages.

Outside our window, an orange trees laden with bright fruit trundle by. A lone woman herds her sheep. I spot cows munching grass and a brown horse smaller than the ones back home. I sit quietly, trying not to call attention to myself.

At the next stop another man, this one with a blue scarf and brown striped necktie, joins our cabin taking a seat beside the door, as far away from me as is possible. The train moves smoothly on its track, silent except for the loud and fast conversation between these two Moroccan men who have never met before. I wonder what they are talking about. Me? The American president? Local politics or something else? In Rabat the man in the checked shirt will depart, leaving me in a cabin with people who don't return my poorly pronounced greetings.

Later I learn that it is a game, to not see anyone. Like on the bus at home, except that here I'm seeing everything.

I see the man in the suit and blue wool scarf praying quietly in his seat. His mouth moves soundlessly with the words of Allah, fingers clicking to a rhythm I don't understand. Head nodding, he holds his arms bent at a 90-degree angle to his body, fingers outstretched, moving as if by memory, down, up, down up, down up.

Beside him, a Moroccan mother dressed in long-sleeve layers and an ornate gold necklace stares at her iPhone, seemingly oblivious to the man prostrating himself mere inches away, separated by gender and a woven armrest. And then as suddenly as it started, the man stops praying and resumes his statuesque posture. The woman continues as if nothing happened.

At the next stop, I see the younger woman with a headscarf who glances at the numbers above our seats as she hefts her silver bullet roller bag into the overhead rack. Seat 54 is marked on her ticket. It's the middle seat, next to mine. The one under which a lady in red jammed a black zippered duffel bag, too large for the cavity. She motions to the rest of us—her cabin mates—asking who the bag belongs to. A teenage girl with uncovered curly black hair and high heels explains in Darija that the bag belongs to a lady who is no longer in the cabin. The new woman struggles to push the protruding bag more fully under the seat, then gives up and solemnly sits askew for the next 2.5 hours without complaint.

I almost offer to wrest the bag free and stash it in the luggage compartment above, but the silence of my cabin mates, coupled with my whiteness and inability to speak either French or Darija keep me quiet.

And so I turn my attention back to the window, to the groves of olive trees and peach stucco buildings outside the glass. To the many towns I won't have time to visit. And to my watercolors, and the art I am making while the man in the blue scarf and brown striped tie pretends not to watch me.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Home Scary Home

Nine Americans were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina this week because a racist white man had a gun and the privilege to use it. This country that I call home makes me sick. And it makes me scared. Not so much for myself, as I am draped in the security of white skin. But for my friends around the world. Fellow travelers who might someday wish to visit the United States and tour its majestic national parks and grand cities.

"I'm afraid to go to the US. People are always getting shot there," the woman next to me on the plane said. We were enroute from China to New Zealand last December and after ten hours of sitting silently side-by-side we finally started up a conversation over breakfast. I learned that her name is Agnes. She is a mother of six --three sons and three daughters--and was headed to Auckland for her son's wedding.

Agnes is the perfect example of everything American news gets wrong. She is a magistrate from Nigeria. Her husband served as the ambassador to South Korea and they'd lived in Seoul for three years. She speaks English with a beautiful accent and carries herself like a queen--a thought that made me chuckle as I remembered the emails from alleged Nigerian princes who cannot spell. As I starred at my free airplane breakfast, she lamented its inadequacy. "We eat big meals in Africa," she told me. I offered her my bread roll and yogurt, which she happily devoured.

We talked about the misconceptions people have of different places. No matter how many places I travel, I continue to be surprised by the unconscious stereotypes I hold. Agnes shared in my frustration. "CNN is always giving negative reports of Nigeria," she explained. "Is that why it exists?" she asked, genuinely bewildered by the misrepresentation of her homeland in western media.

And yet, she was terrfied to visit the US, convinced she would be shot. I told her that as a black woman, the chance she'd be shot by our police was probably less than if she'd been a young man. She nodded knowingly. But the Charleston shooting this week has once again proved me wrong. Beautiful black women and men dressed in their Sunday best are also gunned down in the US. Agnes would not be safe here. In fact, I would be safer in Nigeria than she would be in my home country. And that makes me angry.

As we prepared to exit the aircraft in New Zealand, she asked a tall young man to help get her suitcase down from the overhead bin. "He reminds me of my son," she said. "Except my son is black and he is white," she added. They had the same physical build and were about the same age. It surprised me when she said that though. Growing up in the US, it never occurred to me that two people with different skin colors might have more in common than not. But the more I travel, the more I see the truth of this. Like the little brown girl I met in Nepal whose spunk and laughter reminded me of my niece. And the black man who treated me like his younger sister even though we'd just met.

Before Agnes walked off the plane, we exchanged email addresses--both She invited me and Josh to visit her in Nigeria and I asked her to get in touch if she ever comes to the USA. And then she opened her black rolling suitcase and pulled out a handmade bead bracelet for me from Nigeria. No matter how far I will travel, I am grateful to have met Agnes and I hope to see her again. But after the recent massacre here, I think it will have to be in Nigeria because I am scared of what would happen if Agnes came to the US.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Empty Desert Lake

The valley was green and brown, with signs proclaiming drought as we drove through California's Central Valley. Over the grapevine with the engine whining we crossed into Southern California where a controversy over water rights has raged for decades. As we turned east, chasing the distant lights of Las Vegas, pastel pink and periwinkle mountains rose out of the desert foreshadowing the beauty we were to find at Lake Mead.

We'd been warned not to visit Lake Mead this year. Water levels are at an all-time low, the lowest since the Hoover Dam was constructed and Lake Mead was formed by flooding the valley now hidden in its shifting waters. But we persisted, eager to get our sailing Hobie Cat kayak onto water. We envisioned sailing into tight canyons and seeing the southwest rock layers up close and personal.

Our boat, the Queen Bee, followed that yellow line from Temple Bar past The Temple, a large rock outcropping, through the somewhat narrow Virgin Canyon before coming to rest at a lovely sandbar just outside Hualapai Bay.
What we found was a massive lake, rimmed with colorful rocks showing the many levels the lake has rested at and then receded from over the years. The water lines resemble rings on a dirty bathtub, with invasive zebra mussel colonies hanging on for dear life twenty and more feet above the lake's surface. The tight twisty fingers we looked forward to floating in were dried up and instead looked like canyons rising out of the lake.

Enjoying the mesas and pretty clouds on a sunny day from the comfort of our boat.

In our three days on the lake, we saw just three other boaters, all in power boats speeding along in a hurry to get somewhere, I don't know where. One boat was piloted by a gentleman we'd met at Temple Bar when we were simultaneously launching our watercraft. He'd motored out into the lake to find us and make sure we were okay. We assured him we'd brought plenty of provisions and were self-sufficient, perhaps even better equipped than those back in the tiny outpost we'd left.

Our two nights of backcountry kayak-camping were superb. After sailing We set our camp up on a sheltered beach with lovely 360-degree views. Between our 4-man tent, our outdoor rug, our camp chairs and table set, our sun shelter and our doorstep swimming beach, it was like a private palace in the desert.

After sweeping aside some rocks and smoothing out the sand, we had a lovely foundation for our indoor/outdoor, sun-shaded, pop-up, backcountry cabin.

Our only visitors, apart from the concerned stranger, was a curious duck that swam by each evening. The first night as I lay comfy in our tent reading a novel, I heard an animal noise in the distance. It sounded like a howling coyote at first and I was very excited. Then the noise shifted to that of a donkey (wild burros are common at Lake Mead), before eventually revealing it's true source--a couple of lost cows calling out in anguish.

The sunset from our campsite was peaceful and placid, like we were the only people on the planet.

Our final sail started off with light winds and ended with gusts and water waves so strong that my entire cockpit filled up with water. The boat became a floating bathtub and I opted to sit on the trampolines and laugh like a hyena while the cold water pelted me and Josh sailed us back to dry land. It was an epic ending to our incredible adventure on Lake Mead.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Returning to Childhood Haunts

My hubby spent several of his formative years living in southern Humboldt County amidst the redwood trees and fog. So as we planned our travel route from the Pacific Northwest to Southern Utah, it came as no surprise that he wanted to take the coastal route and revisit some of his favorite childhood haunts. First up was Prairie Creek and Fern Canyon, which I blogged about already. These two destinations were places he'd taken me early in our romance and I enjoyed reliving those old times with him. Plus, seeing elk up close always makes me smile.

Our second day on the Northern California coast found us in places both familiar and new to me, as we continued along the pathway to Josh's childhood. Driving south on Highway 101, we hugged tight to the coastline and enjoyed sweeping views of rocky shores. Our first stop was at Patrick's Point State Park to take in the epic coastline and so I could pee while surrounded by wildflowers. (You know you would too if given the option.)

Pretty pink heart flowers spring to life on this Manzanita bush.

At Avenue of the Giants, we left the highway and meandered between the big trees and tiny towns enveloped within Humboldt Redwood State Park. A short hike in Founders Grove filled us with awe and harkened us back to both our childhoods spent measuring our smallness against the massive tree trunks. I recalled a grade school trip where it took all 28 of us kids holding hands outstretched to fully hug a redwood tree. And Josh and I laughed as we drove by scenes we'd photographed more than a decade ago on our first coastal California roadtrip together.

Josh's 6'3" stature is nothing compared to these old redwoods, which were much too tall to get all in the photo. You'll have to imagine them reaching three times as high into the blue sky.

The hollow in this tree is big enough to build a fort inside! Too bad that's against the rules here.

And then we pushed onwards to Redway, a small town where Josh's mom once worked in a bead shop. We drove down the narrow streets trying to identify the house he once lived in, before heading west on a winding road. The road ends at the bluffs of Shelter Cove, where we intended to camp in a public campground overlooking the shoreline that Josh had remembered fondly from his youth. To our disappointment, that campground had disappeared in the 25 years since he was last in Shelter Cove and so we made do with a grassy lawn set away from the bluff. (It was the only tenting option in town and we were much too weary to drive back inland in search of something else, although we wavered for a few minutes.)

Our campsite near one of the only trees in the park. It wasn't private but it was available and that was good enough for one night.

Luckily we came prepared with a nice bottle of sparkling rose from our favorite winery in Oregon's Applegate Valley. And so as afternoon turned to evening I joined Josh in his brown hiking pants and black soft shell jacket traversing the dark rocks that form tide pools just below the crest of Shelter Cove. Behind us yellow mustard flowers and purple prickly thistles climbed the exposed sandy hillside. And beneath my feet, gray polished pebbles filled my slip-on shoes as the sun warmed my shoulders. We listened to the waves crash and tumble against the rocks and a lone gull screeching on the breeze. The salty sea air filled my nose, displacing the earthy scent of redwood forest we'd left behind that morning. The world felt complete as I sipped my wine while watching a momma seal and her young pup play in the rollicking waters.

Seals and seal pups playing in the cold Pacific Ocean. This shot is from the next day at Seal Rock, just a short drive from our campsite, still in Shelter Cove.

Then, hand in hand, Josh and I climbed back up the cliff and returned to our campsite to make dinner and watch the fog roll in, hiding any view of the ocean and wrapping us in its chilly embrace.

Enjoying some Oregon wine from my sippy cup at the retired Cape Mendocino Lighthouse which now stands on the edge of Shelter Cove. I felt a little ironic drinking wine here as the lighthouse door sported a hand-lettered sign announcing Thursday AA meetings upstairs.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hello from the Road

After a year of traveling abroad (off-and-mostly-on), we are back in the United States exploring our backyard and beyond. A recap of the first month:

  • On March 26, we arrived in Seattle at midnight and spent the next 19 days catching up with old friends; visiting our doctors, dentists and physical therapists; and enjoying all that Seattle has to offer in the springtime.
  • By Tax Day (April 15 for you international readers), we were headed south to see Josh's family in Oregon and then his brother and our nieces and nephew in Redding, California.
  • 4/20 brought us back north to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon for some paragliding and welcome conversations with our pals there. It was like returning home after a year away and I was so thankful to reconnect with the community and landscape that helped nurse me back to health after my accident last year.
  • The following Sunday, April 26, we said farewell to Oregon's wine country and drove the winding road past deer and redwood trees into coastal California. In my mind, our roadtrip began there, in Prairie Creek, California--having already driven more than 900 miles from our home base in Seattle, Washington.

One of several vistas we ogled on the drive along California's wild north coast. These yellow mustard flowers always remind me of my dad who, regardless of the times I picked bouquets for him, is allergic to them.

Prairie Creek

We arrived in the mid-afternoon on a sunny spring day. The golden grasses glowed in the fields, the redwood trees towered in the distance and we were in search of a campsite with a beach view and a flat place to pitch our tent. We settled for a slightly sloping sandy tent site protected on three sides by tall green bushes with a weather-beaten and camper-engraved picnic table just a short jaunt from the ocean. It was divine.

Our plush camping palace complete with plastic outdoor rug and plenty of space for us and our crap inside.

While I drew, Josh walked on the beach. Then together we loaded up into our overloaded Subaru and drove the couple miles to the start of the Fern Canyon trail.

We had to ford a couple streams to get out to the trailhead. Luckily, we didn't need to unpack our boat from the roof to make it.

More than a decade ago, Josh took me to Prairie Creek and Fern Canyon on a camping trip with his high school besties. That same trip, his friend Jonny declared us a perfect couple when I emerged from our tent wearing a dorky headlamp which matched the one Josh sported. Little did Jonny know that thousands of other practical outdoorsmen rely on headlamps, and little did we know that Jonny's declaration would be proven out over the following many years. But I digress.

The hike up Fern Canyon at the end of April this year was beautiful. The ferns flanked the hillsides--albeit not as densely as in pre-drought days--and the winding canyon and its creek provided amble opportunities for Josh to show off his strength as he piggybacked me over the wettest stretches. You see, although my feet are about 75% back to normal, I still need to wear sneakers when I hike, while Josh can skip upcreek in his trusty Chaco sandals.

My matching top and sneakers was a happy accident; the smile plastered on my face is the result of our adventurous life.

On our return to the car, we met an unperturbed juvenile elk peacefully grazing alongside the trail. For more than ten minutes we watched him chew green grass, pose for photos, and generally do his elk-thing while wild children and loud adults hiked past just feet away. I was amazed that a 800+ lb creature calmly devoured his vegetarian dinner while I gazed on. This was one of the highlights of my day and probably even of the week. What can I say? I love wildlife.

So I drew the elk and all his velvet-horned glory.

Back at camp that night we feasted on sausage and vegetables grilled in a single pan and eaten straight from it to avoid any unnecessary washing up. The evening ended with stars overhead and comfy sleeping bags beneath us. Our Western States road trip was off to a good start.



Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Weekend in Redding, California

The first multi-day stop on our Western US Road Trip brought us to sunny, hot Redding, California. Or "almost Oregon" as I call it. Redding is not on most people's list of top travel destinations, but for us it is a must-do adventure. You see, we have family there. Fantastic family. And friends, too. But you can have fun in Redding, even if you don't have family there.

The Highlights

1. Fishing at Whiskey Town National Recreation Area

2. Watching kids play soccer

3. Wading up Cow Creek

4. Visiting the Sundial Bridge

5. Jumping at Rare Air Trampoline Park

Plus, we celebrated our nephew's 9th birthday at a Mexican restaurant, complete with a rendition of Happy Birthday sung while the the birthday boy doned a velvet sombrero.








Monday, April 20, 2015

The Art of Travel

One of the joys of having 24 hours of day to do as I please is choosing to actually spend time doing the things I love. Like making art. I have been drawing, painting and otherwise crafting nearly my entire life. My parents enrolled me in after school art classes in elementary school and I took art as an elective class throughout junior high and high school. I even earned a 5 out of 6 on the International Baccalaurette Art exam (not quite perfect, but good enough!). And I will never forget the junior college art teacher who told me that I should pursue my line art in a Fine Arts program at a respected Unviersity.

Of course, I was much too sensible to go to art school. Instead I got my BA in Environmental Studies, after relizing that my initial major (Architecture) was not for me. It makes sense. I love nature and I don't want us humans to ruin it.

But I also love draw. Not surprisingly, I have drawn and painted a lot of nature landscapes and animals over the years.

And now, with all my extra free time, I have created a regular practice of drawing. For the last month, I have completed at least one drawing nearly every day. And in doing so, I have cultivated a sense of peace and satisfaction within my self. As luck would have it, my artwork is also bringing smiles to the faces of people I care about.

My "daily critters", as one friend calls them, are a happy tree in the sometimes-dark and hostile forest of social media. And they exist not just digitally, but on crisp white paper and inky black relief.

If you are wondering how you can get one of these little works of art for yourself, you'll have to wait awhile longer for the universe to share its answer. The devil is in the details and frankly I much prefer drawing to figuring out how to sell my art. But I did take one leap forward into the technological age of art. I put down my inky pen just long enough to digitally remaster two of my favorite drawings as t-shirt designs!

The moral of the story here is that having more time, means doing more of what you love, which opens up the possibility of sharing your passions and talents with others. And if the stars align in my favor, it might even lead to more time and funds for travel and doing all the things I love. A virtuous cycle indeed!