Saturday, March 17, 2018

Unfinished Ireland Post

This post was never finished and never publishes. But it's Paddy's Day and I'm sad so I'll publish it anyway.

This is the end of the Ireland photos and the end of the trip and it's been a week since I've been back but it is still weighing on my heart.

I wrote this post on my last day in Dublin at a rather empty bar called Foley's that I thought I had gone to in the past but I did not remember it once inside. Few people read it but I guess I write these things mostly for myself so I have a record of them and so I can sort out how I feel about things. I've never been able to figure out how those people with travel blogs make a living from traveling and writing about it. I suppose there is some luck involved. I don't think I'd like that much, anyway, because they are forced to alter their travel just to, well, survive, and anyway I get too tired moving around all the time like they do. The best travel is extended stays in one place, which I have been able to do a few times in my life.

One of those times was in Ireland, but according to my journal from that period that I caught up on during the trip, I wasn't too happy there. I think it was because it was just too far away from Dublin, that I wanted to live in Dublin, and that I really didn't know what I was doing and what I wanted to or could even do with my life.

What I do know is that this last trip awakened some of those same feelings in me. Even though I've done many interesting things and have been to many interesting places, I haven't accomplished anything at all. I've worked at some great places that are pretty tough to get into in the first place, but I've never been able to advance. Some of this has to do with the overemphasis on Masters degrees that Washington places on people. Coming to DC with a lot of student and credit card debt and earning only $28K during my first year and not much more the second really made it impossible to go back to school. Instead, I used to go to the Georgetown bookstore and buy the books that were required reading for students in the courses relevant to my work. But nobody cares about knowledge; they just want that piece of paper that says you paid a lot of money to read the books that I read on my own. Now I think about going back but feel I'm too old for it and the thought of having to memorize geometry equations that I never use just to take the GRE is a real turn off. Anyway, I never really had the people skills necessary to advance, either, which is probably more important in this town.

When I went into Dublin City on Sunday morning, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with the day. There is this literary pub crawl they have in the evenings and I thought maybe I would do that but I really just wanted to hang out and be a part of Dublin. I really wanted to write something. I wanted to catch up on the last four or five years when I haven't really written anything, and I wanted to do it all at once. Of course I felt overwhelmed. The thing is, it's pretty tough to get published for the first time if you're over 40, and you have to have something to publish for it to happen. I have 150 pages of a poorly executed good idea left over from my twenties that I hoping experience can fix, but the passion that drives youth to creativity seems to be lacking these days. The manuscript sits there, as if I am waiting for some genie to come and fix it for me. It's such a mess that every time I start to work on it, I become overwhelmed and toss it aside. But I think it is the only way that I will ever be fulfilled. It has to be finished, and it has to be published. All of this is making me anxious.

I went into this trip thinking it would be no big deal, like when I went back to Luxembourg last year and didn't feel any real connection and not much nostalgia. I expected to feel it then. After all, it was that year in Europe that changed my life forever. I didn't experience many strong feelings when I first arrived in Dublin, either, but something changed on Sunday when I was about to leave. It was like Dublin finally forgave me for my absence and took me back. Now I have no idea when I can return.

I have some connection to that place that I can't describe. That's why it took me so long to get over missing it all those years ago, when I couldn't afford to travel anywhere. The only other place I've felt that is Beirut, but the chaos and political nonsense made it much easier to leave the last time. But even that wasn't the same as this thing I feel for Dublin, a small city with perpetually cold weather, bad (but improving) food, and a love-hate relationship with U2.

I had to take a different bus that dropped me off on O'Connell Street, when I remembered that I had wanted to get my picture taken in front of the statue of James Joyce like I had so many years ago. I was 22 then. Sometimes I feel just as naive about life now as I was at that age. I haven't picked up Ulysses in years. I used to read it regularly and when I was finished, I'd just start over and read it again. I never even read Finnegan's Wake though it has also been sitting on my shelf for years.  I used to read so much and then social media came and my attention span was destroyed and now I only read a book or two a month, and two is rare. You would think having to commute three hours a day would give me ample time to read, but the truth is I'm too tired in the mornings to concentrate and too tired in the evenings, too. It's mental fatigue, really, and spiritual. Actually probably more spiritual. My conscience is tired. Ignorance may be bliss for some people but for the rest of us who have to clean up after ignorance, it is exhausting.

He looks pretty pissed about having to look at the hideous spire in front of the GPO

The GPO, where the war for Irish independence began, commemorated with a hideous spire.

Clery's department store

I didn't really know where I was going but I just started walking and trying to find subjects for photos. I was a ball of anxiety but still feeling a sort of high from the U2 show the night before and I just became so overwhelmed by everything.

Bar and hardware. What a combo. I guess they won't be removing that bicycle.
I walked through St. Stephen's Green.

Joyce again. He used to be on their money, too, before the euro.
Then I sat on a bench and nearly cried. For what? I don't know. Everything I guess. As I wrote about in the above mentioned post that few people read. I must have sat there for twenty minutes before looking at an art sale around the green and wondering what I should do next.

I ended up going down Baggott Street. I discovered that the Baggott Inn that had been one of the first places (the first place?) U2 had played was also gone, just like Windmill Lane Studios and Landsdowne Stadium. I had remembered Baggott Street to be livelier but life seemed to be missing. Maybe I misremembered it. There was a pub I had liked called Larry Murphy's which seemed to be shut for good, too. I had planned to have a pint on the terrace but there was not even a terrace.

The doors of Dublin. Mine looks similar.

Bricks forever.

I walked along the canal that I had forgotten and around the area where all the embassies are, remembering how thrilled I had been about seeing them on my first wanderings. This was before I lived in Washington and before I had met any ambassadors, so it was still all a literal and figurative foreign world for me. I like how the red brick stretches down the roads seemingly endlessly.

Too light, too lazy to fix. Baggott Street

I was trying to practice photography but I didn't have it on Sunday. I had problems with the clouds and the blue sky constantly switching places and it was too bright and too dark in rapid succession. I have Photoshop so I've adjusted some images, but I either believe that Photoshop is for the lazy photographer or that I am the lazy photographer who doesn't want to bother with Photoshop. Anyway, real photographers use Lightroom and they don't take shitty pictures like some of the ones I took.

Since I've been back I've found out that four people I knew died and this just adds to the depression I am experiencing right now.

Monday, January 15, 2018


What is happening in Iran right now is unprecedented.

If you're an average American, you probably have no clue what's been going on, because it isn't being covered on the news.

Iranians have been protesting their government since before New Year's Day. These are nationwide protests that sprung from the small cities rather than the capital city of Tehran or from a CIA-sponsored group. This is the grassroots, the average Joes and Janes (Yusefs and Yasmines), the ones who were largely absent in the uprisings of 1999 and 2009. These are not policy-oriented protests; they are protesting the Islamic Republic itself. They want an end to mullah rule. They want a real democracy.

What else is different? They are not afraid anymore.

I wish to god we had a president who could be counted on to make the right decisions regarding Iran, one that was knowledgeable about foreign affairs, one that hadn't completely gutted the State Department so that it is not prepared to respond to changing circumstances in Iran, one whose stupidity and temperament couldn't interfere in any progress made by the protesters with some ill-timed words and insults. I wish to god we had a Congress whose ruling party wasn't full of religious nutjobs, government-hating ideologues, and power-hungry assholes. I wish to god we had a media that reported on events in Iran and other important happenings instead of dwelling on every tweet the Idiot-in-Chief posts.

This is big, and it's either going to end in massacres of civilians or the fall of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I love the Iranian people and I wish them luck and blessings and hope for brighter days ahead. One day I hope to visit this beautiful and historic country. Until then, I will root for the people to succeed in throwing off their shackles.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Statues of Limitations

I used to work in international democracy promotion. One day during the end of the Bush years I became disillusioned with it all - it was so hypocritical as we bombed the hell out of the very countries we wanted to "give" democracy to. So I quit.

I wanted to go to Europe to get away from the US for awhile, but the only places I could afford to go to were Romania and Bulgaria and a thimble full of others, so I decided to go to Bulgaria for a few months. But I had originally planned to visit a friend in Austria, so I decided to fly into Budapest and train down to Bulgaria.  I bought a roundtrip ticket.

ANYwho, I did all my Bulgaria stuff (read about it here if you want), and set off to return the US, broke and pretty much in despair that I didn't know what was next. I ended the trip in Budapest. On the train there I sat in a cabin with two Kurds with fake passports who didn't speak English and didn't know I understood some of what they were saying because I was proficient in Arabic and Kurdish shares many words. One of them had to help me get back to Budapest when a train strike stopped the trains outside the city. Like in the middle of stops. Despite not speaking a common language he managed to get me to the right place.

But that isn't the point of this post. One of the things I wanted to see was the Statue Park where they put many of the Communist era statues as a way to remember the past. Remember, not celebrate it. Moscow has one, too. Statues put up by oppressors shouldn't be held in reverence, not in the former USSR and its satellites, not in Germany, and not in the US South, where one of mankind's greatest atrocities took place on a widespread scale, leaving behind a legacy of consequences and brutalities.

That is not something to glorify. 

Put up a statue park, tear down the confederate monuments to injustice and treachery, and put them in an outdoor museum so we don't forget the past, lest we be condemned to repeat it. You're either a confederate or an American. You cannot be both. 

Here are some photos of the statue park outside Budapest.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Marrakesh and Orientalist Fantasies

What can I say about Marrakesh?

This city, the Red City, City of Palms, held unfulfilled romantic fantasies of souk merchants and spice bazaars. It is the dream of the Western Orientalist to wander the labyrinths of yesteryear, time frozen, as if it is somehow our right to see things as they were without the encroachment of modernity.

Of course, that is the wrong view of things, the "good old days" syndrome of the white and the privileged. Or is it? That is the whole nature of the struggle in the Islamic World - the struggle for or against modernity and change. Nostalgia is, perhaps, something...human?

We descended from the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas to the vast red flatness of the Ourika Valley and the sprawling metropolis of Marrakesh, a city of one million people and the crossroads of the nomadic Berbers and the Mediterranean people. It was a relief; the winding mountain roads were rather nerve-wracking. Approaching the city was like any other - some farmland, then the industrial areas with factories and yards of cement pipes and petroleum tanks and scraps of metal and warehouses full of products waiting for shipment, the ugly side of civilization. There were noticeable differences, of course - palm trees everywhere, women covered from head to toe, donkey and horse carts on the roads - but the city order was the same. We passed shanty towns, rock-strewn vacant lots, apartment complexes, wealthy suburbs, and palm-lined golf courses, the same signs of the plague of inequality that threatens our species.

Then we hit the city limits, a hazy line between the predictable order of the outskirts and the chaos of too little land stuffed with too many people.  Fes, which is similar in size, seemed like a quiet rural village in comparison. 

Before we left Fes on our desert excursion, I had been inadvertently comparing Morocco to Lebanon. What I was really comparing was Mediterranean peoples. When we left Fes, we left the Mediterranean (and Arab) world for the land of the Berbers.  (This is a vastly simplified way of saying it, so please don't crucify me for that comment.) While Lebanon and Mediterranean Morocco have vastly different histories, they do share That Thing that is common to Mediterranean people, That Thing that keeps me coming back. Berber land is something else entirely.

I used to describe Beirut as "functional chaos." The same cannot be said about the chaos of Marrakesh, I'm afraid, small sample size withstanding. I never wanted to rip my hair out on my first trip to Beirut; Marrakesh made me want to hide. 

Our driver suckered me into a spice store before dropping us at our hotel. I was conned into buying $65 worth of spices, so if you want to come to dinner, I'll be cooking. The reason that I succumbed to this tourist trap is because so many of the spice markets import their spices from China, and our driver, who had been with us for three days, assured me these were Moroccan spices. I'm not sure he is trustworthy, but he did make an effort to point out the Chinese imports, whereas many are mum about that. 

I didn't need "Moroccan cumin" or cinnamon or any of the other things I can get at home. I wanted mixtures and stuff I've never heard of. The first mixture smelled wonderful...I couldn't tell her I was planning to use it with a pork roast, but that's what is coming to my table. I bought another mixture for beef, some harissa pepper to make the harissa soup I had loved in the north of the country, and some saffron...but I was ripped off on the saffron. I had arrived expecting to buy a lot of saffron at much cheaper prices. Instead, I paid $13 for one gram. The woman tried to convince me to buy more, but I had it in my mind to look for it elsewhere.

She also tried to get me to buy herbs for medicinal purposes, but we have enough of that "holistic" snake oil racket in the US. I spent $65 in that store, yet she seemed insulted I didn't buy more.
That was my introduction to Marrakesh.

Our hotel was easy enough to get to, but for some reason, no one could tell you how to get there, even after I had learned how to get there and told them the way and even pointed to Google Maps. Our driver called the hotel several times and still couldn't figure it out; he ended up asking some old man with a cart who was willing to carry our luggage for three bucks, but as he led us through the dark alleys of a thousand year old city, I had to wonder if he was leading us into robbery. We entered a small doorway with graffiti covered walls and few lights and because I knew nothing of the city I felt uneasy. But we arrived, and as it turned out, our riad (guest house in Morocco) was wonderful, and it was even in a great location, once I learned the layout of the city (in a few hours.)

Our hotel

One of the things that strikes me about Fes and Marrakesh and the other old cities we've visited is how ugly are the exterior of their buildings and how beautiful the interiors. You wouldn't believe it from looking at the crumbling walls with the pollution stains and the fading paint jobs and the broken streets and the dirt everywhere, but every building we have been inside (and some others I've peeked into) have been stunning. It's as if private and public life are two different worlds. I would like to say more about that but I really don't know enough to speak about it - my greatest experience in the Muslim world was in Lebanon and it is nothing like here (or anywhere), except for the road signs.

I led Chris to a Western-oriented hotel with a piano bar for many reasons. I will tell you the first was for wine. Our three day journey in a car had whetted my thirst and the chaos of Marrakesh had not helped. We went to Maison d'Arabe, where a soft singing Moroccan played Western tunes to a Western crowd and that crowd was quite sparse. In reality, it was a destination. I wanted to roam the streets and explore the famed medina of Marrakesh as soon as we set down our bags, but Chris at this point could only do twenty minute walks, so this was the compromise.

Our waiter gave us a tour of the hotel

I sampled four Moroccan wines on our trip and all of them are worthy of drinking. Maybe I already wrote this but it is a shame Moroccans can't sample their own wine. It is technically illegal for them to drink alcohol, although in Marrakesh and some other cities they do. Imagine a world where religion dictates what you can and cannot do. That is what the alt right wants for America. We already had prohibition and back alley abortions. Let's not go back to that.

Now, the Moroccan citizen or the Muslim faithful might read what I have written and say I am looking down on the culture, that I am being orientalist or imperialist or whatever term they want to use for it. So be it. Freedom of thought is what alleviates poverty and moves a country forward. If drinking alcohol or not wearing something on my head is bad, then let me meet our creator on Judgment Day for that. Judge not lest ye be judged. Render unto Caesar. It is not up to governments to tell us what to believe. Governments that claim they are acting in the name of religion are just playing God, which is forbidden in all major religions. That my own country is heading the direction of Muslim countries is a source of depression for me and so many others. Economic ruin will soon follow.

I have this idea in my head that maybe history happens in waves, that civilizations progress at different rates and sometimes the forward ones have to move backwards just to give others time to catch up. So, women in the United States a hundred years ago were treated in the same way as women in many Muslim countries are now, and while women in Muslim countries are making great strides, we are losing some of our progress in America. I probably won't be alive long enough to see if this is true or not, but I could give you countless examples in history in various parts of the globe that seem to indicate the same, which would make sense, given that in physics, time is a wave. Or something like that. One thing I can tell you for sure is that Marrakesh is the place to think about the concept of time. The past and the present are barely distinguishable from each other.

If, in the four day time I spent in Marrakesh I had to sum it up for you, I would say this: Pollution. Chaos. Disappointment.

Yeah, that happened.

Funny - just a few days ago they had the UN Climate Change Conference here, where all the world leaders met to discuss next steps on saving human beings from ourselves. It was planned before Trump was elected president. I'm sure most of it was spent trying to figure out how to move forward without the United States, which is rapidly becoming irrelevant in the global world order. Chris developed difficulty breathing. I developed a cough. Chris, whose immune system was compromised due to a chronic and serious illness, was confined to our hotel for a significant portion of our time in Marrakesh. That anyone would dare hate environmental regulations is appalling and should be condemned to the same illnesses that pollution causes. I fear that with the fascists in power in America now, the Clean Air Act is threatened. Problem is, Americans don't know how good they have it because THEY NEVER TRAVEL ANYWHERE.
If I ever convince anyone to finally get a passport and see something in the world, I hope the first place they go isn't Marrakesh, because it is one of the few places I have visited that I didn't like. I will never go back unless it's for a job because I have been there and done that and don't ever have to do it again. I am struggling right now to think of any other place where I feel that way. I was not impressed with Amman, Jordan but I only spent four days there and it was for work and I was sick. I find Brussels kind of dull but I would go back in a heartbeat. I didn't like Varna, Bulgaria but it was winter and it is a resort city on the Black Sea, so I probably went at the wrong time. 

What can I say about Marrakesh except that it was a kind of cultural Disneyland, scrubbed up and overpriced for tourists, its famed markets, like in Fes, full of cheap junk from China. I haven't quite figured out why I liked Fes and did not like Marrakesh, but there was an underlying, annoyed feeling. There are too many variables. First, I had to see most of Marrakesh on my own, while Chris was with me in Fes. A single American woman in the capital of Berber country is, without fail, a target for harassment. Then there was the rain, which cut short my tour of the 16th century El Badi Palace and its famed orange orchard. We were also tired after two weeks of touring, the last three having been in a car. And I was constantly worried about Chris, wondering if we should go home early or if I should take him to the hospital there. When we went to Morocco, his MELD score was 21. When we came back, it was 29 and dangerous and he went to the hospital for a week almost immediately. We were also sick of tajine to the point where we were eating pizza and pasta to avoid Moroccan restaurants, and what's good travel if you aren't experiencing good food?

But I think it was just the city itself, and the morons on motorcycles speeding through the narrow alleys and the noise and the harassment and the pollution, pollution, pollution.

Here are some pictures that will make you wonder why I didn't like it so much:

Berber style door

Berber style doors
nice avenue

Jemaa el Fnaa, the main market square and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Argana restaurant was bombed by terrorists in 2011.

Chris and his snake oil...

Drying leather

Almoravid Kubaa (the dome), 12th century, the only Almoravid architecture still standing in Marrakesh. The ruins are a former mosque. The Almoravid dynasty founded the city of Marrakesh in 1062. At the peak of their power, their empire stretched from southern Spain to Ghana. The kubaa also contains the oldest inscription in Berber script that says, "I was created for science and prayer, by the prince of the believers, descendant of the prophet, Abdallah, most glorious of all Caliphs. Pray for him when you enter the door, so that you may fulfill your highest hopes."

Vote tally wall for Marrakesh, as explained in the post about Ait Benhaddou