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canyon climb

23 Feb

Climbing down and up the Grand Canyon has always been a dream of mine, but after inquiring about the food costs (60 dollars for 2 meals), I realize this is a dream far too spendy for me to undertake. Disheartened, I decide to walk around the top, but then I meet Charles, 72 years old, who inspires me to take the plunge by telling me he “goes down and up in one day,” and that if I want to forgo the expensive food I can “always survive on the cafeteria’s 3 dollar bagel and cream cheese.” Convinced, I head for the South Kaibab trail (13 km), walk past all the experienced hikers with their REI gear, me in my long black leather jacket, I look out of place, and I am sure I conjure up a few laughs every time I pass one of these die hard climbers.

The climb down from the rim is slippery due to the snow and ice, but as the descent goes deeper into the canyon, the red rocks emerge; the deep red appears to melt the ice. I walk in silence down the canyon breathing in the serenity of the immense valley that stands before my eyes. I pass an elderly couple in their 80’s, both carrying huge knapsacks. How are they going to make it with such a load? My pace quickens due to the steep inclination, and at this rate, I am sure to make it down before the sun sets. Then I feel a burning sensation in my toe and an ache in my knees. Ugh, a blister! Not much to do about it but concentrate on getting down. Finally the horizon opens up to the amazing blue of the Colorado River, and I know I am almost there. I see the hanging bridge, the canyon cliffs jut out to the sky above the beautiful blue. I wander through the green Maple trees below, pass the ancient kiva and dwelling place of the Pueblo tribe, and follow the river towards the Phantom Ranch Lodge; the only lodge down below. Soon night falls in, out of the dark the old couple finally comes wondering in; sweaty and tired they have made it down after dark, after many hours. The pain in my knees lingers on, and the exhaustion has kicked in. I dread about tomorrow’s hike up. I gaze at the silhouette of the canyon against the night blue sky. One star stands visible from below. It feels like a magical night sitting in the belly of the earth listening to the old, old river, and watching the stars.

The next day I am up early, and on my way. I am instructed to follow the hikers and to go slow. After a while I realize I have to do what my body tells me. I begin to walk fast, and I concentrate on my body and breathing, I fall into a meditative state. Then a helicopter flies in. Was it sent for the old couple? Apparently they were mistakenly told to bring down extra bedding and food. I continue my ascent, and finally I can see the rim again. A big black raven lands beside me and begins to crow. I know he is cheering me on and I feel I must continue at this fast pace. But then I come face to face with the tour group on mule, each pays $550 for the ride! The guide tells old cowboy stories, as the tourists laugh automatically. Its just too Disneylandish, I desperately need to pass about 15 mules to get away from it. Fortunately the mules outpace me, and I am left, once again, to the silence of the canyon. Every turn requires effort and concentration. I walk alone towards the top. I thought I would never make it. My whole body aches, I can barely walk. My body and spirit humbled, as I realize I am more out of shape than a 72 year old. I continue towards the parking lot and see the cheering raven waiting in a tree. Yes, I guess I finally made it.


Festival Stories

5 Feb

Segou third day, we float up the Niger to the Mangala Camara stage. The opening act starts with regional Bobo music, traditional music from western Mali, where belafon (similar to xylophone) and tam tam drum (gourd with skin) fill the air. I sit next to Abdoulaye, a Malian who works for the festival, and I ask him the meaning of the songs. The first one, he says, is about fishing. I begin to see how the dancers emulate the movements of fishermen, and the dance starts to have more clarity. The men strum on a long drum called a Bongolo and use sticks and hands to drum out the sound. They play their drums with a kind of solemn concentration- very different from the usual enthusiasm of a conga player. Then a beautifully elegant woman called Mama Djoulo enters the stage, “she is not a griot, but an artist.” Abdoulaye says. He informs me that griots are passed down through family lineage and that they sing for money, as opposed to artists who sing for the love of the art. Before only griots were allowed to sing, but now artists are accepted and encounter hardly any resistance. Mama Djoulo sings the “real” story of Issa, a barren woman who wanted a child. She tries for 10 years, but nothing changes, then she seeks the help of a marabout and delivers a child. Next Babenya the talented group from Burkina Faso enter the stage. They are promising young talent with great energy. Give them another few years and they will be West Africas next sensation. They sing of the joy of being invited to the festival, and of cause and effect. Next comes Adama Yolomba with his painted kamel n’goni, red green and yellow. He mixes electric guitar and traditional instruments. His rebellious lyrics advise people to open their eyes or else they will encounter problems, then about guruma, which means stinginess, and how it destroys relationships and communities. Finally he sings about the beauty of Mali, the crowd moves into the arena and groove on the sand. The night sets in, and we move to the main stage to see the famous Toumani Djabate. His calm demeanor camouflages his actual control over the show, similar to an orchestra conductor, he brings out the best of his musicians. The music is fantastic, the drumming is excellent, and the kora sounds are sharp and harmonizing. There is something divine and elevating about his music. Sad to see him go, Ismael Lu has a hard act to follow. His music is mellow, but maybe a little too soft for this evening. He plays his famous song “Africa” and the crowd responds. Finally the Madame Oumou Sangare enters and the excitement explodes. She is accompanied by two graceful dancers, who keep it lively. I wish Abdoulaye were here to explain what she sings, but am content with just hearing her soothing voice. The crowds dance, front row stands knee deep in the Niger river,- it is one big party.

Segou Festival

5 Feb

This is the second night in Segou. The festivals red and yellow lights reflect rainbow like ribbons on the Niger’s surface, as the wind blows the amazing voice of Kasse Mady Diabate, from one bank to another. He is performing on his own after stepping out of the shadow of Toumani Diabate. In a land where singers are passed down through family lineage, it is refreshing to know talent is recognized and singers can move up in the world. Next the gifted Ms. Bako Dagnon, sings her traditional Malian tunes. Then the local musician Bassekou Kouyate (won the BBC 2008 world music award) enthralls with an outstanding performance of the ngroni; accompanied by three other ngroni musicians the combining sound is enchanting. Then the Guinean Diva, Sayon Camara captivates with her powerful melodious voice. Her rhythmic sounds and back up dancers entertain and add to her stage charisma. The tunes range from Guinean griot, to salsa combinations, spiced up with the legendary Guinean djembe. Her bewitching voice reaches across the stands and to the hearts – the crowd loves her and respond with a wave of lively dancing. The night comes to a close as the lights dim off the Niger shore. As I exit, I bump into a Danish music journalist who wants to invite Ms. Camera to a festival in Denmark. There is hope. Lights dim – lights glow, this is the way at festivals.

Festival Sur Le Niger – Segou

4 Feb

Tonight the Malian skies are lit up with more than the stars, this evening on the banks of the Niger, West Africa’s most talented converge to illuminate the night. As the sun sets over the wind blown waters, the Super Biton of Segou open the celebration to a very enthusiastic crowd. They begin with a tropical salsa rhythm and then move to more traditional Malian tunes. (The cultural ties between Cubans and Malians goes far back). Then Neba Solo fills the air with the sounds of the Belafon, and Djembe, accompanied by two energetic male dancers who combine African, salsa, hip hop and break dancing steps, all in one. The dancers stir the crowd, as spectators scream and rise to their feet clapping in joy. As the evening descends into the deep night the Moroccan Gnawas strum their hypnotic rhythms. The sound of the castanets is drowned by the intense drumming, the men move back and forth, and the dance begins to looses its synchronicity as they step into a collective trance. Then the Tuareg strum out the sounds of the desert with their electric guitars; dancers bodies move in slow spiraling elegant motions, arms and hands floating in a wave-like form. Finally Vieux Farka mesmerizes with the desert blues made famous by his father. His sound are promising and set the tone for the days to follow.

Dream City

3 Feb

LA, known for its new age movements and guru inspired eateries! A city with a web of freeways where cars, like insects, whiz around for miles to then get stuck in traffic. Here a person lives half of his life stuck in traffic. And still ‘Nobody walks in LA ‘ (as the Missing Persons song from the 80’s goes) except on treadmills. The city where the cult of beauty is pivotal, the finest examples are worshiped in the temple of Hollywood. The faith is strong and the credo goes as follows: fantasy is true, fake is natural, money is power, poverty is mental , and big boobs open all doors. But what saves L.A. Is its beach culture from Huntington beach to Venice beach, the natural beauty of the shoreline, palm trees and open minded, far-out people. And wasn’t it Los Angeles that really created San Francisco? The dialogue between the two is constant, and reinforcing. All the political minded people seek their refuge in the north. What one is the other isn’t. San Francisco can take itself seriously because of Los Angeles’ frivolity. It follows to ask, where would the US be without Los Angeles? Stuck in some Bollywood wasteland I am sure.


31 Jan

Monday’s morning hours dragged us through Rome’s renaissance winding alleys looking for that daily espresso, desperately needed to withstand the endless snake-like line outside of the Vatican Museum. Finally after several espressos and about an hours wait we were allowed in. Entering the lower gallery, a wave of heat and hot air fell upon us, like a wet blanket, the congestion of sweat, odor, and humidity smothered. The complaints of tourists filled the air: “I wonder what this is like in June or July!” and another “We came at the wrong time!” Commiserating we walk on.

We enter the magnificent Vatican courtyard and palace, where popes used to wine, dine and live. The surrounding buildings and gardens are fit for an emperor, or a pope – only a name change. We walk towards the base of the column of emperor Marcus Aurelius. The image of a winged man claims the space, and I wonder if this is mans first depiction of an angel? Then on through the high ceiling halls and into another courtyard that contains the famous Constantine bronze peacocks and pine cone. They imperiously stand perched atop the courtyard in a terracotta colored arch. As we stand watching, we cant help but observe two tourists that suddenly throw their headsets down and walk away from their guide in disgust. Some guides are more entertainers than educators. People get taken even in the Holy Vatican City! We decide to move forward and follow the line of tourists that enter the first gallery of ancient sculpture. In this gallery the highlight is the statue of the Primaporta Augustus, standing in contrapposto pose: an echo of an outstanding ancient Greek sculpture, the Doryphorus by Polykleitos. Here Augustus embodies the idealized form of a commanding Roman Emperor. It is a must see for anyone who loves ancient sculpture, history, or just admires Augustus.

From here we make our way into the map section. Where there are maps from the 15th to the 17th century. There is a current of tourists, I feel a part of a slow moving river. The line gets slower as it seems the tourists take their time in this gallery, and being quiet bored I flow to an empty bench where soon a German middle aged man sits next to me and says “so you like maps too?” I just look at him and smile, no energy to answer. All these people in one room have zapped my energy. I search for an out, and quickly see that the Etruscan gallery is open, and it is virtually empty!

We wander through the exhibition which was once the palace of Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492) and come across the most exquisite bronze statue from the 5th century BC, the Mars of Todi – a warrior dressed in Etruscan armor. There is no doubt to the Greek influences on his shape, proportions, and features. The Greeks were paramount to the development of Etruscan arts and crafts, and one cannot help but think of the Greeks when one sees the Etruscan exhibition. But the ‘Etruscan’ is also there for those who seek it; in the freedom of their “inexact” proportions, their “flat” surfaces their “harsher” lines and in their “primitiveness.” Perhaps they are the first artistic rebels?

Then through the Apostolic palace where the rooms are painted by Raffaelo ‘the great.’ His signature painting “The Philosophers” holds his audience in awe with so many wise men in one room, while his “Flight of Aeneas” with images of the sack of Troy and Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his back, transports us back to classical antiquity and to Virgil’s the Aeneid. Then down a few stairs and through many narrow hallways to the somewhat hidden Chagall, Munch, and Riveras to name a few. The Vatican has so much art that these modern art masters become some what of a sideshow left in the dark corridors between the Raffaelos and Michelangelos. Tired and worn out the tourist yawn as they forgo entering the galleries and opt to head towards the highlight, the Sistine chapel. Here tourist take pictures regardless of the constant admonitions from the guards, and signs that prohibit photo shots or videos. This is the only time I have seen tourist not acting like little lambs, here they begin to think on their own, over taken by the beauty, they have to have just one shot of Michelangelo’s divinely inspired creations. I wonder what has gotten into them, is it the cooler temperature, or perhaps they heard the old Roman adage: Better to live one day as a lion than 100 as a lamb? Then I think, this is what people come to Rome for: to see the paintings of a man who did not like to paint. How many can create something so magnificent, beautiful and awe inspiring, while not enjoying what they are doing? The contradiction is binding, and is probably why so many just keep coming back, hoping some day to figure him, Michelangelo Buonarroti, out.


27 Jan

Van—no, not the boxy vehicle we drag children or drum-sets around in, but the city cupped by the Zagros mountains and resting on the side of the great Lake Van. Van is the city center of Kurdish culture. Hidden in the eastern part of Turkey unknown to most tourists–unknown even to most Turks – it beckons. The beauty of its setting gave it the title “Pearl of the East” even in antiquity. Now a town of about half a million, it is today often imagined to be as conservative politically and culturally as, say, Erzurum, about 240 km  to the northwest. In fact, visitors are surprised by Van’s modernity and relative openness. Strolling though the city streets, one cannot help but notice the throngs of people walking about—women with shopping bags in hand or pushing strollers, men proudly wearing their hats, women displaying their hair or in scarves. In Van, one is meant to see and be seen, and the city exudes tolerance. The immaculate cobblestone streets display the cleanliness of its people, and the sidewalks are repeatedly swept throughout the day; restaurants follow suit. Famous for its breakfast culture, even in the late morning Van offers plenty of opportunities for eating. It is easy to find a spot and sample the local delicious honey with buffalo cream (kaymak), hot flat bread, and tea or cay (chai). Add to that feta cheese seasoned with thyme, hard boiled eggs, olives, and peppers, and that is a true Kurdish breakfast. The Seval Cahlate Salonu on Yeshil street is a favorite. Later in the day, a chat with the locals might open up several topics of conversation – Kurdish sovereignty, free press, and the future of the Kurdish people in Turkey. The new government has been listening to Kurdish complaints, and last year opened up the only Kurdish TV station. But the Kurdish station which broadcasts from Brussels is still a favorite.

Van is a dynamic but ancient place, and its long history dates back to the Urartians (c. 900 BC). The remains of an Urartian castle are still to be found on a hill in the southern part of the city overlooking the ruins of a town occupied continuously from its founding to the 20th century—a span of some three thousand years. A chronicle of the city would have to mention, at the least, Alexander the Great, the Armenian Kingdom, the Romans, the Sassanids, the Byzantines, the Seljucks and finally the Ottomans and Turks. Ancient Van was, however, destroyed by wars and invasions from 1915 – 1920. The devastation was so extreme that only a few church walls and two minarets remain standing amidst the rubble.  Still, a stroll through the ancient city rewards the imagination with a sense of how life must have been.

New Van was built 5 km to the north of the ancient city, and is as modern as most other Turkish cities. The locals know how to have a good time, and many remind their visitors that beer and wine were created in this area, and drink may have something to do with their openness. Night falls and the music strums out of every other building; Turkish and Kurdish songs are in the air. In the bars couples sit on one side, and single men and women on another. Still, they all mingle once the music has moved them to dance. The night lasts long in Van.

A traveler in eastern Turkey or the Middle east generally cannot help but ponder the long struggle and divide between the East and the West, but at least in progressive, open Van, the East does not really seem so “Other,” and the West no longer so reassuring.

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