When people ask me what my favorite destination
is, my answer is "The last place I've visited." In the same way
that we remember a dream clearly upon awakening while past dreams
have evaporated, my most recent journey fills my life with vivid,
sensory memories for weeks after my return. So here's where I record
my thoughts and memories while still fresh -- hot off the brain.
I spent three weeks in a gorgeous part of France: the Dordogne. The French still refer to this rural haven in Southwest France by its old name, Perigord, and it here where it seems every single farmer makes the most decadent and delectable of French foods: foie gras. The foie gras is paired with the region's remarkable aperitif wine, Montbazillac, from the grapes grown on the slopes of Montbazillac, a 16th century chateau. The Dordogne remains little changed. It boasts more castles than any region in France, literally thousands. Touring the idyllic storybook countryside can do something wonderful for you. It can take you back to your own shadowy childhood memories -- take you right into those long-ago illustrations for fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The Dordogne reaches back over the years and returns to you your first dream images. As you drive the narrow roads that wind about the river, you arrive at medieval hamlets, untouched and wistful. But wait until market day -- then grab your wicker basket, join the crowds and fill up on all the delicious things you can only discover here: prunes smoked over a wood fire, lettuces large as cafe tables, sheep cheese infused with Armagnac and coated with raisins, chestnut liqueur, violet-scented mustard, Bordeaux wine sausages and the famous cepe mushrooms, weightless and fragile as butterfly wings.
Where has this country been all my life? I fell in love with everything: the kind, friendly people, the emerald green countryside, the succulent food, and the medieval architecture. I visited the four imperial cities: Marrakech, Fes, Meknes and Essaouira. In Marrakech, I was pulled into the Jemaa-el-Fna as if by a magnet. I usually hate crowds but the Fna was so joyous, I returned again and again to this most famous of squares to eat the stewed lamb with prunes, the harira soup, the lentils, and the rich chocolate cake, to drink the cardamom-scented ginger tea and to watch fortune tellers, performing monkeys, henna designers, snake charmers, folk musicians and best of all, storytellers.
Morocco surprises you with scenes straight out of the Middle Ages. Passing through the magnificent gate into the medina of Fes, I moved aside for donkeys and jostled with shoppers, both men and women in long pointy-hooded jellabahs. I climbed to the medina's roof to watch the tanners who stand bare-legged inside 11th century vats of dye made of limestone, water, salt and pigeon droppings. The color for the dye is made from natural spices, red from poppy, brown from cedar, green from mint and blue from indigo. When the leather skins are dyed, the tanners run on their dyed legs through the medina with a pile of blue or red or yellow skins on their heads.
In Fes too I saw men weaving wool at looms, working the treadles with their feet in shadowy rooms and little boys curling the silver wire before it is wound around pottery kohl bottles by the old men. Veiled Berber women crouched in doorways selling bunches of mint and young women bargained for rose water. The deeper I descended into the souks, the more astonishing the goods. I was dazzled by handmade babouches, the thousand-and-one-night slippers in rainbow colors, adorned with embroidery and beads. I was seduced by the ornate, silver Berber and Tuareg jewelry thrown into what look like treasure chests and by thuya wood tables inlaid with mother of pearl and smelling like pencil shavings. Oh, the glass perfume bottles ornate as miniature minarets and the richly-colored pottery laced with calligraphy and glazed to a bright gloss. Endless delightful things for sale and while you look in wonder, your other senses are equally seduced by the fragrances of fresh thyme, cinnamon, dried jasmine, ginger tea, and of lamb kebabs laced with sprigs of oregano and grilled over glowing coals.
I wandered down the alley where wedding chairs are made. They are carved of wood and as large and ornate as thrones. On the wedding day the bride and groom are carried on these chairs by their families and held high to be shown off to the neighbors. I saw too children carrying little boards on which bread dough shaped into a perfect circular mound and etched with the family's initials rested, covered with a floral cotton cloth. In the morning the children run to the baker so he can bake the families' breads in his huge wood burning oven. The children will return to pick up the bread for the midday meal.
In Essaouira on the Atlantic, I was the only foreigner among of sea of Arab women at the ancient hammam. In sauna-hot rooms, the women, young and old scrub themselves and each other for hours, all the while sloshing hot water from plastic bowls over themselves as they lounge on what look like plastic prayer mats. I was washed from head to toe by my innkeeper who gommaged my body. Gommage is something that women do every week in Morocco. With a brown sticky soap that looks like molasses and a sandpapery hand mitt, they literally scrape off all dead skin. You can see the skin peel off you like tiny rolls of dirt. Gommage is painful and pleasurable; it's like a chemical peel without the chemicals. Afterwards your hair is washed with the rassoul, a black soap that looks just like so many rocks. Finally you're massaged with oil from the argan tree, a tree that only grows in Morocco and a small part of Mexico. You return from the hammam, cleaner than you've ever been in your life and your skin as smooth as silk. Had I spoken Arabic I would not have only returned home cleaner but I would have had my weekly social visit, a time of solidarity and gossip and freedom, so dear to the women, who, in this Moslem country, do not frequent restaurants or cafes on their own and so have the hamam as their place of social interaction.
In Essaouira, the blue sea is bright as cobalt and so are the hundreds of wooden fishing boats. The sounds are the cries of seagulls, the calls to prayer that are like siren wails, the itinerant Gnaoua musicians singing the music of sixteenth century Sudan and Senegal, the insistent cries of the boys who sell dried rosebud necklaces or those who sell petits fours, the antics of the blind balladeer with his see-through tambourine, and of the seafood grillers who fan their fires with pieces of cardboard and call for you to try their sea urchins, their spider crabs, their ocean crickets. And you do and you return to their stall the next day and the next because now for the first time you have really tasted the fruits of the sea with flavors deeply fresh, slightly mysterious.
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When I visited New Zealand, a country I had lived in for five years and know well. One afternoon in my “hometown” of Wellington, I went on a Flat Earth Tour. New Zealand is known to many as the film location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and at first I was afraid we’d have to visit every locale for the film. “Not to worry” my guide assured me. “We’re going someplace exceptional. We are going to the Waiwhetu marae.” I knew the word marae. A meetinghouse on private land of a Maori tribe. I had never been on a marae simply because a visit is impossible for a non-Maori, unless you know someone of that tribe. The maraes are out in the countryside but now I discovered there are urban ones as well and we were going to one in Petone. (puh-tone-knee) I remembered Petone as a bland, industrial suburb of Wellington. The thought of Petone housing the spiritual world of a marae, intrigued me and even more so when I was given instructions on how to approach it. “A woman will come outside to welcome you with song and invite you into the marae. Then you will do hongi with her, that’s rubbing noses so that your breaths are mingled. Just remember to keep your eyes down. Do not make eye contact.”
I stood a good way from the entrance to a low-slung building. A woman wearing slacks approached me slowly, singing all the while she beckoned with her hands for me to follow her. I did and after our hongi, I asked her name, “Erenora” she replied. She was Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, the master weaver of New Zealand. I knew who she was for she is a legend and her dramatic, contemporary hangings are displayed in museums around the world. Now, she was standing in front of me with a plate of snacks.
The marae encompasses 200 families, all of them engaged in rediscovering and re-creating the traditional Maori arts. Erenora’s husband is New Zealand's master carver whose elaborate work adorns New Zealand embassies worldwide. All about, people were creating beautiful things and they even have a visiting American sculptor.
When she was eighteen Erenora learned to weave tukutuku (decorative wall paneling) for the meeting house at the marae alongside other women. Today, Erenora’s creations are breathtaking such as the one I saw in the Auckland Museum, a huge, gorgeous hanging of dyed turquoise albatross feathers that rippled down the wall like a spring waterfall. “Weaving,” Ereora says, “is more than just a product of manual skills. From the simple rourou food basket to the prestigious kiwi feather cloak, weaving is endowed with the very essence of the spiritual values of the Maori. Our belief is that the artist is a vehicle through whom the gods create.”
At Waiwhetu Marae, I watched music instrument makers, carvers and learned the most basic weaving technique from Erenora herself. This surprise visit was one of the highlights of my trip, fascinating and moving.
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|View of the Dordogne from Domme
Cottage, Urval, South West France.
|Gnaoua Street Musicians - Essaouira
Blue Gate of Fes
Fishing Boats of Essaouira