Back in February we flew to Newburgh, NY for a long weekend in the Hudson Valley. The weather was cold but the river and mountains were beautiful, and the small towns were charming.

Here are a few pictures from Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, a former railway bridge converted into a park and walking trail.

Poughkeepsie in the Morning
Downtown Poughkeepsie is full of sturdy, timeless brick buildings that glow beautifully in the morning sun.
Walkway Over the Hudson
High above the icy river at Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park.
Hudson River at Poughkeepsie
A mile or so downriver, the elegant Mid-Hudson bridge carries US Highway 44 and NY Highway 55 across to the town of Highland and the Shawangunk foothills beyond.

Four months later, the part of my Moroccan trip that I remember most vividly is the day and night we spent in the Sahara. We drove east from Tinghir, changed to a four-wheel drive at Rissani, and went south and east into the desert until we left the road behind. There was nothing all around us but horizon and sand.

Erg Chebbi
Erg Chebbi

And then, suddenly: dunes! They were enormous, literal mountains of sand. All around the base stood a ring of camp-hotels, hugging the dirt track. One of these, Kasbah Leila, would be our home for the night. The heat was stifling; it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and there was hardly any of that.

We waited inside the hotel, taking in the glittering interior and the welcoming cool of thick adobe walls. Down the back steps, a gravel path led to a bath-house and the rectangle of Berber tents around a carpeted courtyard where we would sleep.

We had some time to kill until sunset, when we would ride camels up the dunes. It was still ungodly hot. Someone brought us cotton mats and we laid on the ground with our faces inches from the sand and tried to catch any hint of a breeze.

Feet up in the Sahara

Read More →

Morocco, Old and New

In Marrakesh, the closest grocery store to our hotel was in the basement of the Menara Mall. It was pretty much what I expected: a bunch of wannabe-Western stores selling day-glo shirts and overpriced shiny shoes, a food court with mediocre food sweltering under fluorescent lights. There was even a Chili’s in a prime location on Mohammed VI Boulevard. In these surroundings, it was no surprise that our fellow shoppers favored polo shirts, skinny jeans and halter tops.

What was surprising was that no matter how far into the country we got, the skinny-jeans crowd never completely died out. Even in Rissani, 500 kilometers from Marrakesh on the edge of the Sahara, jeans and djellaba mixed freely.

Every day we saw crowds of students trooping to school, dressed western-style in t-shirts and jeans, slacks, or track pants. The girls rarely wore head scarves, but lots of them had on miniature lab coats over their outfits. Watching them go to school was like following a young pharmacists’ convention.

Older people were all over the map; most women wore the hijab, but dress for men and women ranged from shapeless djellabas or caftans to the latest western fashions. Urban or rural, rich or poor, Arab or Berber; I can’t say exactly where the dividing line might be. Maybe it’s down to personal preference.

I was also surprised to learn that alcohol is widely available, although it’s very expensive. A bottle of beer costs $4 or $5, and a mixed drink $7, in a country where a high-end dinner out (or a ripoff tourist meal) costs $15. Our driver Youssef told me that some bartenders might refuse to sell to Muslims (especially Muslim women), but from my observations, it’s a flexible rule.

One last tip about drinking in Morocco: stick to beer. Every bartender we found was hopeless at even simple drinks. I ordered a whiskey sour one night and was given a tall Coke with some whiskey in it. A confused exchange in pidgin French and English ensued, and my server returned a short time later with a glass of, I would guess, two-thirds lime juice, one-third alcohol. At least he got the spirit of it right.

This is Morocco’s flag. It’s rich in symbolism: a green star for Islam, peace, and hope; a red field for the royal Alaouite dynasty, bravery and valor. But there’s a much simpler meaning, and to understand it you only have to hop in a car and drive.

On our fourth and fifth days in Morocco, we passed over the Atlas mountains towards the town of Tinghir (pronounced “Tin-R-irr”). The further east we went, the drier it got. Between towns there was nothing but stony desert, the occasional walled farm, and the mountains in the distance. The dominant color was rusty red, the color of iron-rich soil.

Kelaat M\'Gouna
Kelaat M’Gouna, town of roses

Every valley has its river, splitting the low ground between the distant peaks. A few hundred feet on either side, palm trees and rushes form a narrow belt of green that brings to mind the delicate star on the Moroccan flag.

Todra River Valley
Todra River Valley

Nearly all the villages, towns, and farms in this part of Morocco exist in this narrow margin where growing things is possible. Red and green, desert and water, death and life.

Aït Benhaddou, a ruined ksar (fortified town) just north of Ouarzazate, was one of the highlights of our trip. You can see it from far down the road, a cluster of mud-brick houses ringing the tallest hill for miles.

It was overcast, cold and windy as we descended the Atlas Mountains and pulled off the rutted track into a gravel parking lot. We had to traverse a modern settlement with a few houses and a gauntlet of trinket shops before we got to the dry bed of the Oued Ounila.

The road to Aït Benhaddou

Aït Benhaddou is a berber name and refers to the clan that once ruled the village. At least some of the fancy towers in the foreground were constructed by the film crews that have used the city as a location.

Majestic Aït Benhaddou

Tagines, Moroccan stew pots, lined up on the path to the city.

Tagines at Aït Benhaddou

The Oued Ounila river is almost dry this time of year, but a series of stepstones forms a path through the mud.

Splendid Isolation

We climbed to the top of the city, dodging more trinket sellers, and were treated to a wide view of the river valley.

Looking Down from Aït Benhaddou

Wherever there are Moroccans, there are cats.

Sleeping Cat, Aït Benhaddou