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Our first steps into the medina are chronicled in the Tuesday Tale, "How We Found Our Riad in the Marrakech Medina." In this post I'll share some pics from the labyrinth known as the medina. We'd been to medinas and souks in Tunisia and to bazaars in Iran, both of which presented us with the feeling of being a rat in a maze. In Iran we were with our guide the whole time, so we did not get lost. In Tunis, we got lost and couldn't find our way out and I desperately had to pee, like I mean I thought I might die or else pull down my pants and go right there on the cobblestones, we kept running into dead ends where there were no shops. We made it out barely in time for me not to burst. Usually we enjoy getting a little lost in these types of places, but that became painful! We've meandered medieval labyrinths in old quarters of several European towns, as well. So I can't claim to have been to *tons* of these types of places, but a fair number. The Marrakech medina was on a whole new scale from anything we've previously experienced.
Our first day there, we meandered with little point ... i.e., just for the sake of meandering. At the time we finally stopped for lunch about 2:00 p.m. and asked the waiter if he could point out on a map where we were, because we had zero idea, we were shocked to see how little ground we had covered from where our riad was. It seemed like we must have crossed vast distances. But though we walked a lot, we made little progress as the crow flies. But that was no problem, our goal was mere exploration. Later, when we had goals, it was more unnerving to have been walking for ages and have no idea where we were. Paper maps are useless. Google Maps was helpful only when we got reception on our phone (we had purchased a SIM card at the airport), and it often cut out deep in the medina. We also were sure to take the business card of the riad with us when we went out walking precisely so we could pay someone to take us back if absolutely necessary.
One time a British girl came up to us as we were trying to consult the phone and asked if we knew where we were and how to get to the big main square. Although we had come from the square an hour or two earlier, we had absolutely no idea how to get back, and we were trying to head the opposite direction of it to our riad, but we weren't getting a signal, so we had no clue about anything, not even if we were doing what *we* wanted to be doing. We felt badly but we could not help the girl, she was alone, I said she could come with us until we found our bearings, but she opted to keep going on her own. It's definitely more scary to be lost alone so I was glad to have a teammate and Google Map reader.
I regret not buying some strawberries. We ultimately didn't buy anything in Morocco except for two bracelets I picked up near the end of the our last day as we straggled home after a lot of walking. At that time we didn't know that we had 24 hours to get out of the country, so I'm glad I made that one little purchase or I would have nothing at all to show from the brief trip. But anyway ... the strawberries looked absolutely divine and there were tables and tables of them throughout the medina.
I've never seen such piles of herbs before. I would get hit with overwhelming olfactory sensations from time to time, and usually it was in passing a mound of herbs. The most common smell punches were mint and cilantro.
We noticed that for such a crowded place with so much raw food, so many stray cats, no real drainage systems we could see, often patchy roofs, we really didn't encounter unpleasant smells -- even passing by the raw meat and the exceedingly fresh chicken (which kind of made me sad).
I've spoken before about how my dad's exotic travels for work when I was a kid and teenager inspired my desire to see the strange wide world for myself. One of the places he went was Morocco. I still have the souvenirs he brought me back. I remember him talking about the raw goat carcasses hanging in stalls along the roadsides. By now I've seen this many times in various countries, but seeing it here specifically reminded me of my dad's tales and how at that time I couldn't imagine this.
So what else do they have to peruse there in the maze? Well, shall we take a little stroll to see a teensy fraction of the things available?
Mounds of olives.
A fair number of items mysterious to us. Sometimes as we stopped to ponder, the seller would point things out to us in English or explain what they were used for, which of course was always a prelude to trying to make a sale. So unfortunately we could not stay very long at these places and learn very much -- the longer you stay the harder the sell.
Dried flowers, roots and herbs.
Craftsmen and things like hardware and appliances, scooter parts, etc., seemed to clump together in little sections. We watched some men carve designs into wooden posts and dowels using a tool with their feet. Here's one of the wood shops.
Most of the medina is simply where people live. The marketways, shall we call them, are like arteries through the medina, and off of them are the countless quiet little capillaries lined with residences that often dead-end at a home.
The capillaries are filled with wandering kitties. They wander and sleep in the market areas, too, but they were much more accessible to the stalking tourist who wants to pet them in the residential areas. They seemed very fond of sitting on the seats of parked scooters and mopeds. Notice in the painted mural above that there are two cats on the back of the scooter.
Lots of kittens, too. Here was a mom nursing her kiddo. In the back you can just see the white tummy of another kitten stretched up against a gate. He wanted to come out so very badly. He cried and cried and bit at his metal prison. Surely he was safer inside, but I finally had to move on because his desperate little pleas were killing me.
This was sweet, in a random corner, somebody had set up a little place for this momma and her kittens ... a rag and a piece of glass that was probably both a wind shield and a solar panel. A plastic dish of water nearby. The kittens were so precious sleeping in the sun, oh how difficult it was not to reach around and snatch one up to snuggle. The people probably really need to be fixing the cats not to breed so much, but if they're gonna breed, at least they take good care of them. We saw extremely few cats in questionable health.
We had lunch that first day beside this paved street. Wise kitty across the way diligently looks both ways before crossing the street.
Should you visit Marrakech (if you haven't), you can see the tanneries if you want, but find them yourself, don't let anyone tell you they're walking home or to work and it's just on the way, they'll lead you no problem; that there is a special market today, an auction, a berber auction is ending in an hour, hurry come see!; that street is closed, come this way. Also find the palace by yourself -- 1,800 people will want to show you where it is. No one is doing anything for free, either they will ask for money or they're getting a kickback from whomever they lead you to. It's a shame but the occasional genuine person gets lost in the sea of scammers and unwanted guides who try to force themselves upon you. After awhile, Erik was just waiting for the next guy to tell a lie or try to lead us somewhere, they were going to get some schooling!
He also stood his ground about paying the tannery guy who never said there would be a charge. A passerby with better English stopped to moderate the scene. In the end we paid the guy 20 dirhams (basically 2 Euro). The other people staying in our riad, a British foursome, fell prey to the same scam and paid 250! So we got off OK but I was kicking myself for being so stupid -- usually Erik is more susceptible to these things but this time it was me because of my glee at the prospect of seeing "a Berber auction" with camels and stuff ... the promise of which turned out to just be a lie.
We had been strolling along -- with our fair skin we simply can't hide that we're tourists -- and some guy lounging on his moped struck up a conversation and told us about the supposed market. "Just go down there, then turn right, and then left, and then after the square another right. Oh heck, I'll just show you, my house is over there, I'm going home anyway." We suspected a scam immediately and told our impromptu guide who led us there over and over and over that we were not going to pay him money, but he insisted he was just on his way home, "No no! I'm not asking for money." After many more than three turns, he dropped us off at the tannery without a charge. So it was a two-part scam and by the time we were inextricably inside the tannery, it was too late. A man ushered us inside immediately and began walking us around like a tour guide before we could say "boo," crushing mint leaves into our hands to breathe in as "a gas mask" to dilute the smell. Over and over "a gas mask!" As if we didn't get the joke because we didn't laugh. I didn't laugh because I was already simmering at how we'd walked right into this, for clearly we would have to pay this guy. So I kept waiting for the admission price but one never came as he tugged at me, "Over here, over here, take a photo."
So we did follow him around for about 20 minutes and listen to his script explaining the process. I already knew that goat hides were soaked in urine to remove the fur, and to be honest despite the raw hides and the ones soaking in urine it didn't actually smell that bad. So below, a pile of hides and the various "tubs" used to soak the hides in either urine or dye.
So tannery toured, he then led us inside a big shop to see the finished products. I was surprised he didn't ask for money from us when he turned around at the door. It is of course a three-part operation, because now they want you to buy something in the store, so I figured this was the end of the "scam" being dropped off here. Gratefully, the people in the store were not actually hard sells, we told them several times we weren't interested in buying anything, we just wanted to look, as they tried to interest us in this and that. In a place like that, having to give only *a few* brush-offs was refreshing, even relaxing. They did have lots of really cool stuff, leather and otherwise, but we were not there to spend money and didn't have a lot anyway.
I was just about to think that maybe I had been too cynical, so far nobody had asked us for money. But a few steps after exiting the store, our tannery man came up asking for the money. We were annoyed but saw it coming, though we didn't expect it this late in the game. If he had asked a reasonable price, we wouldn't have made a fuss. But when he asked for 250 dirham for his unsolicited services, that was a step beyond annoying. I'm sympathetic to the idea that Western tourists in developing countries should not haggle the vendors to death because a few dollars isn't much to us but can be a lot to them. I don't like being taken for a ride in the markets either, and maybe I should relax on that and actually I have compared to how I used to bargain, but at least you are presented with a price up front, nobody is trying to pretend they're giving it to you for free or waiting until you're already walking away with the merchandise to mention that there is a price on it. This is what was annoying. If he had said a price up front, we may have chosen to pay it. Not the equivalent of 25 Euro, to be honest, but it would have been honorable to give us the choice. He could have bargained with us for a price we thought was worth it. For some perspective, the entry fee to places like the palace and the tombs and the gardens was 70 dirham per ticket, so 140 total for an actually amazing experience lasting several hours each. For additional perspective, we paid the guy whose help we desperately needed and asked for who spent a lot of time with us to get us to our riad 300 dirham.
So as mentioned above, after some heated arguing with the man for misleading us and never stating a price, the passerby mediated and we paid 20 dirham. We were pretty sure our first unsolicited "guide" had purposefully led us on an unnecessarily circuitous route, probably hoping we would need help from someone to get back, for a price of course. But we actually found our way and eventually walked by that guy standing in the same spot where we "met" him, obviously nowhere near his home that was supposedly by the tannery, looking for his next victims. We didn't confront him but had a good chuckle since we only paid the tannery guy 20 dirhams, he didn't get much of a kickback from us.
Another guy attached himself to Erik so relentlessly, professing he just wanted to practice his English, but just by coincidence of course offering to show us the way to various places. Erik finally had to literally tell him to leave. I was already sick of people coming up to us and just walked away leaving Erik to fend for himself. It's exhausting, but if you know it's going to happen, I think it helps you brace yourself and maybe brush it off better. But again, it's a shame because the occasional genuinely friendly person cannot be discerned from the overwhelming number of disingenuous and scheming people who see you as just a dollar sign. I read warnings from other travelers about Marrakech, but it was hard to truly understand the scope until experiencing it myself.
Here are a couple photos I snapped as I wandered off by myself while Erik was weighed down with the "English practicer."
One thing I did not get good photos of was all the donkeys and donkey carts. The medina is full of them and especially the streets and parking lots surrounding it. Even in sub-Saharan Africa and China I never saw so many in one place. There were truly gobs of them. So it's kind of weird that I didn't end up with any good photos, but here's one beside some street art, which we did not see very much of, at a wide spot in the medina. He looks a bit thin to me, but most donkeys seemed quite healthy.
So all in all we really enjoyed the medina, though it was trying at times. If we get to come back to Morocco someday and complete our aborted itinerary, I think we will feel we have done Marrakech enough and move on down the road. I'll tell you about our last night there in another post. I'm still pining for those strawberries!
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So, I consistently read from numerous sources -- travel blogs, travel guides, friends who had been there, etc. -- that Essaouira was a lovely seaside town to visit and that the blue boats were a notable feature. And I'd seen plenty of photos of said boats, but to be perfectly honest, I never found any of the photos particularly captivating, technically or artistically proficient as they might be. Nice, sure, but the pics alone weren't drawing me in. But being based in Marrakech for a few days, it seemed like a sensible place to go to see the sea from, a straight shot west, and everyone else's excitement over the place intrigued me.
The drive out was nice to see some scenery outside the city, a variety of landscapes. We were particularly entertained by a section of road where all the trees seemed to have goats in them. Erik said, "They have some mighty strange birds here in Morocco!" I don't know how goats climb trees. I half suspect the shepherds put them up there in the middle of the night for the benefit of the tourists driving by. They've probably got a cherry picker stashed away somewhere, somehow invisible on the flat, barren landscape, that they use to place and remove the goats. (haha) And of course we liked seeing camels along the road. Reminded us of Tunisia. Here's a pic with both tree goats and camels!
Nearer to the outskirts of Marrakech, a number of terra cotta and pottery stores, lamp stores and other large displays of goods.
So we got to the town in the afternoon and were pretty peckish, so the first thing we did upon entering the old town medina was look for some grub. We were passing by this place, I stopped to take a picture of the kitty, and a man came out of a restaurant across the way beckoning us inside. We trundled over and peeked at the menu, looked good enough to our hungry tummies, so in we went, figuring it was probably an overpriced tourist-trap kind of place, but oh well, we didn't feel like searching around, we only had a few hours to spend in town before we needed to head back home if we wanted to get back by dark.
They offered us beer (another indicator of a tourist restaurant), and we happily ordered a local brand. Ordered food, which turned out to be Grade A delicious. Maybe our best-tasting meal. The room was kind of like a cavern. There was only one other table of patrons, speaking a range of European languages, including English. In the corner of the restaurant was a three-stringed guitar-esque instrument: a traditional Moroccan instrument called a sintir, and a set of castanets. One of the Europeans was interested in the sintir and this eventually led to two of the waiters playing the sintir and the castanets, which was really cool. And then an old man sitting in the corner, the guy who had beckoned us into the restaurant, got up and started dancing. There was no one else in the place, it wasn't a contrived scene for tourists, just the people having fun. Some of the Europeans tried playing the instruments, too. We just sat back and enjoyed the merriment and food.
We didn't have tons of time to explore the old town, so we stuck to the main thoroughfares which were lined with only souvenir stalls. But it was still pretty and much more organized than the medina areas we had explored in Marrakech. And scooters were not racing past every 10 seconds, which started to get on our nerves in Marrakech's medina in the super narrow streets.
So when we were in Tunisia, we visited a number of Star Wars filming locations (also in Guatemala). I read somewhere that Lucas's inspiration for the Tuskan Raiders came from the Bedouin (nomadic tribes in North Africa), so there's absolutely no way it's a coincidence that the Jawas wear the same cloak as these guys, whom we saw a lot of in Essaouira.
Essaouira was a filming location for Game of Thrones. In 2015 we were in Girona, Spain, which was another filming location, and we were also at one of the locations in Iceland, though before those scenes were part of the show. Essaouira was the setting for the scenes in Astapor. If we had gotten to finish our itinerary (hopefully in the future) we would have visited other GOT locations, too. I'm a fan of the show, but not one of those know-everything-there-is-to-know-behind-the-scenes fans, so outside of knowing Iceland was a prominent filming location, I have learned about others by happenstance as I am visiting them myself. I think it's rather interesting to see what real-life places capture the imagination of filmmakers.
But foremost on my mind was finding the seashore and blue boats. So we easily found the promenade out to the shore. Lined with sea birds and a nice look back to the city.
Ah ha! A blue boat! And someone repairing a blue boat!
Then we passed a stone tower and found a bunch of blue boats and young men jumping down into the water next to them as if in a competition. OK, so I found the clumps of blue boats everyone raved about. Still didn't really see the big deal, but they were pretty enough, and it was a pleasant day out.
We continued walking and soon the promenade opened up into a vast fish market of people selling whatever they had just caught.
I inspected some of the items for sale. I think ocean dwellers are really cool, but once they're up land, I find them a little creepy.
And then. OH. I guess *that's* the collection of blue boats everyone talks about. I didn't make a nice photo, but it shows you there are a quite a lot and why this city is known for them. They stretched on to the right past the limit of my wide angle lens.
So it turned out to be a really neat place! Kind of overwhelming for us land lubbers, with all the boats, all the birds, all the dead fish on display, all the people -- unlike any other place we have been. Here are some shots taken while walking around the pier.
Naturally, kitty cats find this place extremely beneficial to their taste buds and tummies. And I find kitties extremely beneficial to my sense of joy, especially while traveling.
We didn't make it back to our guesthouse in the medina in Marrakech until after dark. Erik drove admirably working our way through thick traffic of cars, trucks, buses, mopeds, scooters, bicycles, donkey carts, people, coming back into the city, none of whom acknowledge there are actual lanes marked on the road. But fortunately we had open road to pass this truck quickly ... looking just a little lopsided!
Oh, I'll pass on one thing about our drive out from Marrakech. I had already been warned by another Facebook friend that the cops were real sticklers about speed in Morocco, and that in a two-week visit he got two speeding tickets -- he was driving an SUV with his wife and baby, not really tearing it up. So I told Erik that and we were already prepared and committed to obeying the speed limits. At one police checkpoint, which are routine in many countries just to check paperwork, the policeman seemed to see dollar signs (dirham signs) when he looked in and saw foreigners. He gave Erik a ticket for speeding in a school zone (neither of us saw a lowered speed sign, and this school, if functional, was a lone building in the middle of nowhere) and charged 150 dirhams, roughly USD$15. But Erik was skeptical of the legitimacy of the "crime" and when the policeman asked if he wanted a receipt, he said, "Yes, I want a receipt so I know that money isn't just going into your pocket." Well, in the end he did not receive a receipt, but he did receive 50 of the 150 dirham back. So I guess it paid $5 to stand his ground. Word of warning to fellow future driving visitors.
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I decided to check out the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech based only on the fact that I love cemeteries and tomb stuff and a recommendation from another FB friend. But I really had no idea what they were, so I was stunned to find something so grand and lavish beside the crowded cobblestone alleyways of the medina.
On the way in, we read some information panels on the walls along the tunnel that led into the necropolis about how the tombs were discovered in 1917 and restoration work began, etc. This didn't really help me imagine any better what we might see, and it certainly did not prepare me for the soaring ceilings and incredible craftsmanship ... how could something so spectacular be lost in this crowded ancient city such that it was then "discovered?" I mean, usually underground chambers and buried treasure are "discovered," or buildings that lie deep deep in a jungle or mountains.
Evidence suggests that the area might have been used as a burial ground from as far back as the 1300s. But the large mausoleums were built in the late 1500s by sultans of the Saadian dynasty (also spelled Saadien). The founder of the Saadi dynasty rests in one which was built by one of his sons (a subsequent sultan). Then progressively more elaborate mausoleums were added, the last and most magnificent one was built by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur who died and was buried there in 1603. As I have not been a student of Moroccan history, the name did not mean much to me, but apparently he was the most renowned ruler of the Saadian dynasty and gained control of the desert caravans which supplied Europeans with sugar at exorbitant prices -- funding his ability to make opulent tombs and palaces -- as well as other high-demand commodities like gold, slaves, ivory, and ostrich feathers.
So this is Ahmad al-Mansur's tomb in the middle, in the room called the Chamber of Twelve Columns.
The elaborate cedar wood ceilings of the chambers were high achievements of Moroccan and Saadian art. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes between the materials all carved with similar intricacy -- carved stucco is perhaps the most prominent material, but also parts of the Chamber of Twelve Columns have marble carved with the same detail. Add in the meticulous use of colored tiles, and the artistry and craftsmanship represented is truly overwhelming.
In the whole of the burial complex, which is relatively small (just a few mausoleum buildings and small courtyards), there are about 160 people buried, I think a large number having some relationship to this al-Mansur ... wives, sons, advisers and trusted officials. Naturally, there are plenty of kitty caretakers roaming the courtyards keeping watch over the graves.
By the year 1672, the Saadi dynasty was over and a dude named Moulay Ismail came to power in Morocco and went about constructing his own legacy, in the pursuit of which he had the Saadian Badi Palace destroyed, but fortunately he seemed to have scruples about demolishing a place of burial. So instead, he simply sealed all the entrances, walling it off, which ultimately achieved the same aim -- out of sight, out of mind, the neglected tombs were largely destroyed by the indifferent forces of weather and time. And so the beauty of the detailed wood and stucco work started to slip from memory until it was completely forgotten, even though the necropolis is adjacent to the Kasbah Mosque, one of the main attractions in the city. Of course we could not visit inside the mosque as we are not Muslim.
Then in 1917 a plane was flying over the city taking aerial photography and saw this space from above. Imagine, you'd be like, "Holy cow! What is this?" I can imagine a bit of explorer adrenaline rush. This is a picture of what the place looked like when they first started restoration work in 1917. We watched a video of the restoration process, which is impressively painstaking and completed with admirable patience.
I could just stare at the details for ages, imagining the time, effort and skill it took, mesmerized by the patterns. This is the Chamber of Lalla Mas'uda, the oldest mausoleum in the necropolis, built over the tomb of the founder of the Saadian dynasty and includes now the tombs of the son of the founder who commissioned it and the mother of Ahmed al-Mansur.
I wanted to share the really impressive stuff first, but the day we saw the tombs began with a jaunt through the Jardin Majorelle. It's a short walk outside of the medina. It's a small botanical garden but full of color and variety and water features. It was put together over several decades by French painter, Jacques Majorelle. He referred to the garden as “vast splendours whose harmony I have orchestrated… This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.” He acquired the land and built the gardens for his own pleasure, but the upkeep was costly and so he opened it to the public in 1947 as a way to pay for the maintenance through entrance fees.
At its "height," I believe it was about 10 acres. But after suffering some accidents and a divorce, he was forced to subdivide it on several occasions, and eventually sell what remained to pay for medical expenses. He died in France in 1962 after he was taken there for medical treatment, sadly separated from his beloved garden. His passion, essentially abandoned after his death, fell into disrepair.
Then, much like the happy fate of the Saadian Tombs, the garden was "discovered" by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Bergé. Enchanted with it, they bought the garden in 1980 and saved it from being razed and the land used for a hotel complex. The new owners undertook the restoration of the garden, respecting the vision of Jacques Majorelle.
In 2008, Bergé donated the garden to a Parisian foundation after the death of Yves. At two and a half acres now, new plant species have been added since 1999, increasing the total number from 135 to 300, and a team of 20 gardeners works to maintain the garden, its ponds and fountains.
The proprietor of our guest house suggested we couldn't walk to all the primary tourist sights, most of which ring or are inside the medina, as they are too far apart and we should take a guided taxi tour. As guided tours are just not our thing, we ignored the advice, but if you're trying to see the city in one day, she absolutely has a point, but if you have a few days (as we did) to delve into the city, I think you will find your feet can cover a lot of ground, particularly if you have Google Maps to help you navigate expediently. We didn't hit everything I've seen on "best of" and "top 10 lists" for the city, but the tombs and the garden were two things that I set out with intent to see; we did them both in one morning and I recommend them to other visitors!
My time in Armila was made possible by the La Wayaka Current residency program.
During our stay in Armila, we took an overnight trip to Anachakuna, another Guna village on the mainland. They are on the cusp of welcoming tourism to the village, but as of now, do not have experience in visitor accommodations. So we stayed in the very large house of the village headman. The house has a huge kitchen and a chef who cooked us a most excellent dinner. It was nice of them to accommodate us, and for me, I managed OK in this house because of my pretty extensive experience staying in remote, and shall we say "rustic," places. But probably the average tourist won't be thrilled with the crude plumbing (single outhouse toilet that didn't actually flush), unlaundered bedding and such. In relation to the non-flushing toilet, we asked our host where the toilet paper was for the loo. This caught him off guard, apparently not something they normally use. He quickly summoned a young man and sent him off with some money to go buy some for us. This made me laugh.
The lack of a shower, though, gave us the opportunity to see and experience how the locals bathe -- in the river (really more of a stream). Basically, you want to be the guy the furthest upstream above everybody else, haha, so you don't get their soap or dirty water. I actually appreciated this opportunity.
Just like Armila, Anachakuna is laid out against the ocean so that the villagers have the ocean bounty in front of them and the jungle bounty behind them.
It is a very neat and tidy village, and planned out along a grid. So whereas Armila is kind of a random meandering of paths, Anachakuna has straight paths like a modern town would. In the background of the photo above, you see a round thatched roof right next to the water. This is a village bar. Whereas Armila decided to limit alcohol sales in its village to only the weekends, Anachakuna decided to allow sales every day, but only between 9:00 p.m. and I think it was midnight, or maybe 11:00 p.m. And unlike Armila that had a couple places that sold only one brand of beer and that's it for alcohol selection, this bar had many kinds of beer including my favorite. (um ... leaving space here for when I remember what it was called, haha.) In fact I bought a few extra and took them with me back to Armila. It looked like it could be a lively place, with a big open floor which could be used for dancing or whatever.
Here are a few photos from the "streets" of Anachakuna. Although it has a very different feel from Armila, it still has the same Guna style ... if that makes sense. I think you can even discern that from comparing photographs of the two villages. But here is Anachakuna:
And of course I had to take a picture of the kitten! But it was a funny exchange asking the family to whom it belonged if I could take its picture. Cat in Kuna language is "misi." So when I held up my phone camera and asked to take a picture, I wanted to make sure they understood I wanted it of the cat, not of them. So I kept saying, "misi?" "Misi?" It took them awhile to understand my request, and when they did, they had a hearty laugh. What weirdo wants a picture of a kitten?
And on the other end of the cute scale, is this crazy huge bug hanging out in the dining area of our accommodations.
One of the best things I witnessed in this whole trip was a little scene in the dining/common area of the headman's house, where we were staying. I think it's just because it was so removed from my world and at first appeared so random. We were sitting quietly at a table, I think probably drinking some water or something, and across the room several Guna women were gathered around the headman. He had what appeared to be a ledger in his hands and they were all calmly discussing something in the Kuna language. The women in their beautiful molas and legs and arms full of winis up to their knees and elbows, some of them wearing headscarves. I was thinking what a pleasant scene it was to witness, something nobody back home of my acquaintances could imagine, when suddenly -- and I mean very suddenly, at the drop of a hat -- the women all jumped up out of their seats and sprinted out of the house, clearly very excited about something. It left us all a little stunned. Whatever could have happened?
They returned awhile later and we learned that the politician who had won the recent election in their district came to the village by boat to say hello and thank his constituents. I've never seen people more involved in politics than the Guna. They take their elections very seriously and apparently are ecstatic when their man wins. I've also never seen a group of people vacate their seats with such alacrity. Truly impressive.
The other seemingly random sight, and very unexpected and anachronistic in this traditional village of wooden canoes and bamboo, thatch-roofed huts, are these rusting remains of machinery. In the 1940s there was a large banana business based here, even with a train running through the jungle, to service this banana trade. We visited a place upriver from Armila where there used to be a large cement office building beside the railroad tracks. The jungle has digested pretty much every trace of the building, and it was rather shocking to learn it had been there.
Then we took a jaunt to some Edenic hideaways ... beautiful sand beaches, clear blue water, lots of shells to collect. A cold drink made it perfect as we just sat in the water like castaways. (and notice my wini on my wrist!)
Interesting interior of a seashell:
That beach above was an island, whereas this beach was further down the mainland from Armila. The sky was stormy and eventually it rained on us. In weather as warm as it was, being rained on in the water was perfectly delightful. This beach had some interesting tidal plants and driftwood.
We traveled (by boat) down the coast from Armila to a small tourist town, La Miel, pretty much on the border with Colombia. An unexpected sight was a large boxy building that was a duty-free shop. It sold a lot of beach-oriented items, clothes, lotions, toys, etc. and of interest to some of our crew: wine! I personally didn't buy some, but others generously shared their loot with me back at our hut in Armila. This was also our first contact with other beers besides the one in Armila. So, I pretty much had to try them all. Cold drink in hot weather, perfect ocean temperature and gently undulating water to float on your back in ... really hard to beat. Even motivated me to a few selfies.
So we climbed up a huge number of stairs to the border at the top of a hill and back down the hill into the Colombian tourist town of Sapzurro.
On the coast of a lovely bay, there were many bars and stores and hostels. A far different atmosphere from the Guna Yala villages just a short distance away on the other side of the hill. The very best thing I purchased in this town was a super cold bottle of water. Super cold is not something you get in Armila. It was absolutely delightfully divine.
And so this wraps up the summary of my time in my 3-week artist residency in Armila. See the archive to learn all about Armila. I enjoyed these daytrips to see more of what surrounds Armila, and it helps confirm the reality of this slice of the planet, its serene beauty and bounty blessings in ocean and jungle: a special place indeed.
My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency.
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Witnessing the leatherback turtles dig their nests and lay their eggs was a far more profound experience than I ever would have guessed. Especially touching them as their ancient bodies move to perpetuate their species. A species which sadly, like so many other majestic creatures on earth, is endangered. Their numbers are a fraction of what they once were a few decades ago.
They're called leatherback because unlike other sea turtles who have a shell over the soft part of their body, their covering is a hard rubbery material with ridges along it. It's by far the largest turtle -- they can reach a weight of 1,200 pounds and a length, from extended flippers front to back, of nine feet.
Nacho said it was okay to gently touch the turtles while they were digging. The turtle did not feel like what I expected ... with its slick rubbery back, and hard rubbery flippers giving way to extraordinarily soft skin at the top of their flippers where they connect to the head and back -- essentially the leg joints. The hard rubbery "shell" and skin fuse together seamlessly, it’s not like, say, a crab with a discreetly different fleshy body and hard shell that can be separated from it. They’re fused together, I found it fascinating to feel this fusion. But I think that super soft skin was the most unexpected. In the photo below, it's the really wrinkled parts of the skin.
The sound of their breathing was like nothing I've ever heard, almost like a fake animal sound they come up with in the movies for dinosaurs or alien creatures. It's almost unearthly, but in fact it's because it’s SO earthly, so ancient, that it's so emotionally powerful. They tended to drool, opening their beaked mouths each time they exhaled that ancient breath. A primeval giant eye looked out in a strange, struggling impassivity, the eyelid closing over it occasionally, which closes side-to-side like draperies. Great gooey globs rolled down their face from their eyes. Their tears were like little globes -- little bubbles and little worlds reflecting the sky and water. Popular legend says they cry because they are sad to leave their babies behind on land.
Although it's delightfully poetic, the turtles aren’t actually sad, they're not crying. Their bodies are simply shedding excess salt ... because sea turtles live in salty ocean water their entire lives, therefore drinking salt water, they have evolved a salt gland, which empties into the sea turtle's eyes and is excreted in these goopy tears. They have the added benefit of protecting the nesting mother's eyes from sand on the beach, and keeping her eyes moist during her time on land.
The back flippers are the ones that dig the nesting hole, which can be remarkably deep. They swivel from side to side, as if from a central hinge in the middle. I kept my hand on one for a long time while it was digging one night, feeling the movement of her body, rocking back and forth, so powerful, so driven by instinct and intuition.
After they drop in the fertilized eggs with the babies growing inside, I was told they deposit four or five other ones on top that can serve as food for the babies as they hatch. Just as mothers usually come ashore at night to bury their children, the kids pop to the surface at night to race down into the ocean as fast as they can before an array of predators can snatch them. I was told that if the first turtle pokes his head out of the sand and sees that it's daylight, he hunkers back down in the sand, signaling to his siblings that they must wait for awhile yet.
After they lay their eggs and cover them back up, the mother turtles spin a 360 in the sand (a slow spin, of course) before heading back down into the ocean. Nacho said they make this jumble of tracks to confuse predators. One time, we watched one turn her finishing circle and then start her way to the sea, but she kept pulling herself sideways along the beach (parallel to the ocean) and we kept moving back to make room for her and she kept coming toward us instead of toward the sea. It was totally like she was chasing us ... a surreal slow-speed chase.
After they’re born, for the female turtles who successfully mature (a tiny fraction of the hatchlings), they can circumnavigate the globe before returning to their birthing ground to lay the next generation. One leatherback turtle was tagged and tracked by satellite for 647 days before the signal was lost. In that time, she covered 12,774 miles swimming through the ocean! Leatherbacks have been sighted as far north as Alaska and the North Sea and as far south as Chile and New Zealand, but the females come to the warm tropical waters to beach and lay their eggs. The males never leave the ocean in their whole life.
Well, I could go on about their anatomy and biology, but those are the things I found most fascinating. This turtle's face had something wrong with it, but I didn't know what -- a disease or an injury? I asked a nice man at Conserve Turtles about it and he said the damaged areas are scar tissue, and likely they are the result of the turtle being attacked by a shark. He said that's not uncommon. Yikes! Poor thing. One of her nostrils is closed over in scar tissue. But clearly she's still healthy enough to breed and reproduce. Sweet trooper!
One of the most magical nights, which started at a campfire on the beach and ended with singing in the rain, was watching a leatherback just down the beach from our fire lay her eggs, cover them up and go back into the ocean. That's the one I held my hand on for a long time, feeling her work and breathe. The scene was this: standing under the stars and a half moon; the moon reflecting on the wet sand each time the waves recede from the shore, and on the water each time they come in -- the beach curves like a C, the moonlight reflection was a straight line across it -- the sound of waves continually pounding the shore, coming in one after another, while she lumbers toward the water, slips in under the waves and disappears.
So ... moving along. Armila applied to UNESCO for World Heritage status for its importance as a leatherback nesting site. We were told it would be granted in December of 2019. The villagers have recognized the importance and the sacredness of the turtles for as long as they have lived there. In their folklore, there was a human couple in a small community on a beautiful beach, and one day the woman said she wanted to go swimming. So the man waited for her below a palm tree and he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was not around any more. He looked for her on the beach, in her house, or maybe she was in a secret place, he tried to find a secret place. By night time, he was really worried. Then he slept and had a dream. He saw her in the dream and she said to him, “Please don’t follow me, I’m living in the sea. The turtles came for me, and I’m living with them in the ocean." The Guna people therefore think that turtles are sisters of humans. Unlike a lot of cultures, Guna don’t eat turtles or turtle eggs, even though they could have a feast on them if they wanted. But they feel the sea turtles are some part of us who separated from us and went to live in the sea.
Armila recently began having a festival each year to celebrate the leatherback turtle and to impress upon the school children the importance of conserving their habitat and protecting them.
It was a sweet festival but so small, I hope they figure out how to attract more visitors from the surrounding villages for the important cause. Mostly it was just the villagers, but there were some Colombian artisans (and I bought something from each of them, haha) and some journalists. Maybe the journalists can give it more exposure. It was two days. One of them was a Saturday, so Chris and I tried to buy some beer from the oldest man but he wouldn't sell it, even though we kept saying, "Sabado!" Turns out the village made a rule this year of no alcohol at the festival after last year people got really drunk and out of hand.
The first festival morning, we in the residency were asked to dress in the traditional clothes, the village women donated molas and skirts for us to wear. Then we took part in the parade that started at one of the schools, where the children lined up in their classes, with little banners to carry in front of their class.
The parade was led by teenagers playing traditional instruments and dancing a traditional dance. See footage of the parade HERE.
It ended at another school where the village volleyball court is. (Volleyball is extremely popular.) The dancing continued for awhile, then Nacho and the school principle gave some speeches.
Each of the classes had made a mural about turtles (tortuga in Spanish) and Yoon, Chris and I were tasked with being the judges.
We each selected one to be our personal winner. Yoon selected the one made with bottle caps, below, clearly having an affinity for this project after she and Chung (working together as "Chulma") made a flag out of bottle caps collected from the beach trash, and also a stop-motion film. It's super cool, watch it (about 30 seconds) HERE.
I chose the one below as my winner. I liked the message ("the ocean is our future") because it encompassed the broader issue around the tortuga's survival, and I thought it was very artistic, too -- I liked the bright colors, and you can't really tell in the pic, but the animals are all 3-D.
The next morning was designed for children's activities, and it was seriously one of cutest things I've been a part of. Some of the artists (the *real* artists) helped kids with painting projects. This is a mural that Chris painted that included scenes of the village and portraits of all the residency participants. The kids had a fun time going up and recognizing each of us and pointing each of us out.
On the other side of the canvas was this turtle design that happened to match the blue and white paint of the school. Chris Holley is a talented painter and an elegant dancer specializing in tango!
Then some of the artists had gathered materials from the forest to make turtle costumes for the kids. This was totally awesome and the kids were way into it.
This sweet girl was having a hard time keeping her costume on and was too shy to ask someone for help, but I could tell she really wanted to be a turtle, so I knelt down to her and attached her leaf "shell" and wooden flippers.
Then they all marched down to the beach with their costumes on.
There they broke into several groups and had a sand "castle" building contest, but they were to build a sand turtle instead.
The most hilarious part was the bubble blowing. Other artists -- you notice everyone else did all the work, I just took pictures! -- made buckets of bubble water with dish soap and fashioned bubble wands out of sticks and pipe cleaners. I would never have thought of this, the other people were so creative! Clearly the kids had never done this before, it took a little practice before they got the hang of it.
Some blew the bubbles, some chased them!
This kid was completely enraptured with the bubbles. The adults also played other games with them and he was just as enthralled at everything going on.
I tried for ages to get a focused pic of the little kid popping up in back, almost like a little photobomber. He was so cute but always, always moving. Before the end of the day, though, I finally captured his wonder-filled eyes in a brief moment of stillness.
This was the only day in the whole residency time that I could freely take photos of the people with abandon. Journalists were there doing it, too, it was expected. So no awkward asking if it's OK, or waiting for the Monster Hour to begin. (as explained in The Village post) It was definitely my favorite period of time, getting to use my 70-200mm lens for what it was intended rather than for insects, as I had been trying to capture from four feet away in the jungle! So here are some shots that I like of the children playing that morning on the beach.
These two kids, I presume they are brother and sister but I don't know that, completely captured my heart ... walking hand-in-hand, the boy always looking out for the girl and hugging her, playing with her. She clearly felt safe and loved.
While we're on the beach, these pics are from another day, but I had fun with these kids. There is this black clay-like substance on the ground under the water right where the ocean and river outlet meet. The kids dive down and grab handfuls and smear it all over themselves, and of course I tried it, too, with them, making designs on my legs. Interestingly, I did not wash the mud off for many hours, not until evening, and even though the muddy substance was washed off, the dark colored design actually stayed on my legs for another day before fading away!
And as a little coda, sort of in the vein of festivals ... another celebration we took part in was Nachito's birthday. Our host and cultural liaison, Nacho, is nicknamed Nacho for his real name Ignacio. So going off of his nickname, his grandson is nicknamed Nachito (although in my mind I kind of picture it as Nacheetoh, haha). Nachito was two years old when we arrived, and he turned three at his big birthday party. He added so much entertainment to our time eating meals at Nacho's house, where he lived.
He was absolutely adorable but prone to temper tantrums, and since I wasn't his mom or step-sister who usually had to deal with him, his tantrums were adorable, too. One afternoon he wanted desperately to go with his dad as his dad went off to do some work somewhere. Dad had already walked away, but Nachito kept running down the yard trying to catch up, his step-sister had to drag him back to the house over and over and finally locked him in the bathroom (the outer-most room of the house). But that ratcheted the meltdown to Level 10. Finally his grandpa was able to calm him down.
Another night he did not want to take a shower before bed and was throwing a tantrum over it. Cried and screamed and fussed, and finally his mom strong-armed him into the bathroom and into the shower. Things quieted down in there for a few minutes and then he came out naked and squeaky clean, still dripping with water. Good job, Nachtio, you're nice and clean! Then he promptly laid down in the dirt and rolled around. So ... he was an adorable little mud sausage.
All was good at the party until his mom tried to coax him to blow out the candle on his cake and he was apparently scared to, was on the verge of a meltdown, then another girl came to the rescue and blew it out.
My brother said my nephew changed like a light bulb on his second birthday into the infamous "terrible twos." Nachito changed like a light bulb out of the terrible twos on his third birthday. All of a sudden the next day, he was interested in coloring books and pretending he was learning like he was in school with his step-sister. I never saw him cry again.
Fittingly, it was during the turtle festival weekend that this nesting shark survivor came ashore. I don't know if the kids always take this much interest in the turtles, as they are commonplace to them; my guess is they gathered around because we did.
I like this shot because it looks like the turtle is flying.
Click HERE to see a video of this turtle digging.
This was the single time when I was trying to take a photo withOUT kids, and so of course they all wanted to photobomb! Even loyal Buddy came with us to watch the turtle.
Perhaps taking their cues from our excitement, the kids escorted the leatherback mother back into the ocean and cheered her on, just as I was doing. You get a good sense of scale here, how mammoth this amazing creature is next to a line of kids. I thought it was a really neat moment as the indigenous children ushered the ancient turtle back to her home -- not a scene I am likely to see again.
At this point in my traveling "career," I've spent time, not just tourist time but real time, with a number of rural, traditional and indigenous cultures and tribes around the world, and I have so many thoughts about the similarities and differences and what makes for those, ideas about why there are parallels and why there are intersections. The degree of the Guna's traditional resistance to outsiders is unique to my experience. Only a couple decades ago the Guna were considering isolating themselves completely -- no foreigners in and no Guna out. Although they are a part of Panama, they are their own sovereign entity and could enforce this segregation. They eventually decided that was too drastic, but they have kept the rest of the world at the far end of a long stick until only very recently. Now it seems clear to all of us in the residency that they’ve opened themselves up too much to foreigners … this revelation cementing after a big group of tourists landed on the beach one night and stumbled around the village for an hour the next day before leaving. The whole village had a completely different vibe.
Because of the recent increase in interaction with outsiders, Armila's cultural integrity is already starting to degrade. Some of the villagers see this and are saddened, some see it and are indifferent, some don't see it. I could see a few of the older children already becoming jaded and disrespectful, losing their personal integrity, as well -- instead of friendly and welcoming, they were yelling at the foreigners and mocking them. It's a tough situation because tourism is such an easy way for the villages to generate revenue, one can hardly blame them. But the upshot is that the villagers come to see visitors not as people, but merely as dollar signs, and this is when cultural dialogue and interpersonal communication breaks down, people separate into camps of "us" and "them," the village people and the foreign money.
I look at the spirit animal of the Guna of Armila -- the leatherback turtle -- and can't help but see it as an analogy: their efforts to keep outsiders at bay until now is like a turtle shell over their land, their indigenous identity and history. Their strong culture protected their weaknesses and vulnerabilities under its shell. As the sea turtle becomes threatened and endangered, so does the Guna culture. I'm blessed and grateful to have witnessed it, and I want to share what I saw with others, but I'd feel a secret happiness if I, and all foreigners, were never allowed back.