Mary Clark, Traveler

Elbert Nance, WWII Cryptographer

Elbert Nance with his 75 year old war journal

 

Last month I wrote a story of a travel experience in Nagaland, India when I was following my father’s WWII footsteps from the Assam Valley, India to Kunming, China.  Afterwards, I learned a friend, Elbert Nance, had also been posted in the Assam Valley during the war. He had been astounded to read of our connection as was I and we quickly arranged a time to compare stories.  What I found was a 99-year-old veteran who remembered everything about his war experience.

Elbert Nance is a modest man, wanting at first to deflect questions about himself but we soon were deep into WWII history.  Elbert joined the U.S. Army on July 1st, 1942 after finishing Paris Junior College, and was posted overseas to Cairo, Egypt in January, 1943. He didn’t return home for over two years.

He served as a cryptographer (code translator) during the war, not because of any prior knowledge of the skill but because he could pass a background check before being allowed to learn the codes. Since radio messages could be intercepted, plans, orders and reports had to be transmitted in secret codes.  His primary job was to send and receive coded messages to and from bombers about where and when to bomb as well as results from the bombing.  He used code books to do this although the Sigaba machine became available later in the war, allowing instructions to be typed in.  After being trained in Cairo by the British, his instructor told him, “you have the most important job in the service.”

Elbert Nance’s shadow box

Nance worked with the British, Canadians and Americans serving in Cairo, Egypt, Benghazi, Libya and Sicily and Naples, Italy.  He particularly enjoyed the British with their need for tea breaks.  Some Americans had left his British friends baseball equipment, but they didn’t know how to play.  Nance tried to explain the rules in a condensed fashion.  When they played, he got a “home run” by running the bases as the British players over-threw every base.  In the telling of the story, Elbert was smiling in remembrance of a good time.

While in Italy, he got orders for the Assam Valley.  In consulting his 75-year-old diary, Nance confirmed departing Italy in February, 1944.   His journey to the Assam valley was quite different from my father’s who, as a pilot, was able to fly in short stints over the Middle East and India.  Nance began in a truck to the Mediterranean Sea, then a British boat to Cairo, another British boat to Bombay (now Mumbai), five days on a wooden bench sitting straight up on an Indian train to Calcutta (now Kolkata), three days on the roof top of an overloaded boat up the Brahmaputra River, another truck ride, finally arriving in Jorhat in March, 1944. He would be there for a year encoding messages to and from the pilots of the B-29s, the long-range bombers whose targets were in Japan.

We began comparing stories.  My father flew the Hump over the Himalaya mountains from India into Kunming, China bringing fuel to American and Chinese armies.  Nance was aware of the Hump pilots and their dangerous operation, but they were not based where he was, and he never made that flight. Their two bases were only 120 miles apart.

However, they shared some experiences, including primitive living conditions.  Nance worked eight-hour shifts or more and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  My father had to fly missions every 36 hours and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  Elbert arrived just as the Monsoon season began and my father also served through the Monsoon season a year later.  Nance was issued rubber boots to manage the muddy ground, lived in barracks that had quickly been set up in the middle of a field, showered and shaved in cold water and ate dehydrated eggs and potatoes and Spam – the classic C-rations.   My father would have identified with these experiences, too.  Nance did secure a jeep for his use but was warned, “don’t get close to any cow.”

Nance made his way back to the U.S. in March, 1945, this time passing through Australia to California.  He had been around the world.  Returning to Paris, he continued his education, became a civil engineer, worked for an oil company for 36 years, and returned to Paris to work as a surveyor.  He and his wife, Nancy have been married for 69 years.

Those war years are now 75 years old but in Elbert Nance’s mind, they are as clear as yesterday.  As with other WWII veterans I was able to interview for my book, I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear one more story, one of very few available to be told.

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Books should be arriving soon

My initial copies have finally arrived but they were ordered before others. It was very exciting to finally hold a copy and I’m anxious for my friends to get their own copies. My publisher is as frustrated as I am with the slowness in delivery. Amazon orders seem to be prioritized with the delivery services and UPS, etc. are already under a lot of pressure because of COVID19 and sick employees. Hopefully, next week. For any who have read the book, I would greatly appreciate a review on Amazon.

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Nagaland and WWII

Men of the Konyak Tribe in Nagaland, India

During WWII, my father flew The Hump, the moniker given to the air lift operation that carried gasoline and other supplies from the Assam Valley of India to Kunming, China over the Himalayas.  It was a challenging and dangerous operation with many planes and crew members lost because of weather and mechanical failures.  Three years ago, I followed his WWII footsteps, starting in India and ending in China.  An unusual task I had given myself on the trip was to seek out and thank the Nagaland people for their help in saving downed pilots during the war. They were a small but important connection to the Hump operation. Stories were told of pilots appearing at American bases in the Assam Valley weeks after they had been assumed dead, accompanied by native warriors. Tribes were paid one hundred silver rupees by the Allies for each airman returned.

Typical Baptist Church in Nagaland, India

Fortunately, my father never needed their services, yet it was comforting to know that help would have been there had his plane gone down. These former headhunters had a fierce reputation a century and a half ago; today they are mostly Baptists — an unexpected transformation. Their conversion began in 1872 with the arrival of Baptist missionaries. It took many years for all the Naga tribes to convert, a process that continued during the World War II years. Every village now has a Southern Baptist-style church with an adjoining pastor’s home.

Nagaland is its own separate Indian state, barely accessible by one of the worst roads of my traveling career. We arrived in Mon in the Naga Hills at night after eight hours on a pothole-filled road, making the final third of the drive in a dense fog. There were neither street signs nor streetlights in the town of twenty-six thousand.  The next morning was to be our excursion to Longa, a nearby village of the Konyak tribe.

 

The birds awakened us at 5:30 a.m., not long before a nearby radio began blasting a country and western song with English lyrics: “I got you. You got me. We got love.” A solitary church bell rang, and soon a pig began rooting. With all that noise, it was easy to be up early and ready for the trip to Longa. At breakfast, we visited with a couple from England who were also in Nagaland to retrace a father’s footsteps in World War II, a surprising coincidence that led to comparing stories over several cups of coffee.

Chief of local tribe near Mon, Nagaland

The ride to Longa was much easier than our trek to Mon had been. The day before we had stopped at a liquor store for bottles of wine for the village chief. In exchange we would be given private time with him and his six elderly warriors, primarily to photograph a disappearing generation. We arrived in thirty minutes and were taken to the village chief’s home, where a group of elderly men sat in a semicircle around an open fire, their reddish smiles revealing longtime use of the betel nut. Except for his gray synthetic polo shirt, the chief was dressed royally, wearing eight strands of large orange beads with four brass heads, each supposedly representing the head of a person killed by the warrior. The ends of small animal tusks disappeared into his elongated earlobes. He also wore large bone bracelets. The chief spelled his name in English for us: King Tuwing. Kota, the oldest of the men, was one hundred, while the king was the youngest at eighty-five. All were heavily tattooed on their faces and bodies with blood and vegetable dyes, a method that is no longer practiced.

Women of the Konyak Tribe near Mon, Nagaland, India

Four wives joined the men and sat on a side bench, smiling readily. I noted their confidence and ease in wanting to be a part of the gathering. They wore coral bead necklaces with turquoise beads scattered in between. The chief’s wife gently pulled up her skirt to reveal a tattoo just below her knee, a lace-looking ring around her leg. All the tattoos were fading as is the tradition. A young woman served us three pineapples.

I had brought small pins with me of our Eiffel tower topped with a red cowboy hat. When I travel, I often give them to people I meet, making me a kind of roving ambassador for Paris, Texas — the small town with the great name. As I slowly pinned one on each of the men’s shirts, they laughed heartily. I wasn’t sure whether they understood the humor of the Texas cowboy hat atop the French Eiffel Tower or just thought it a funny thing to give them, or both. It all contributed to a cheerful ambiance.

With the aid of our interpreter, I told the king of my father’s job as a Hump pilot and thanked his people for their help in saving some of our pilots and crew during World War II. Because of the advanced age of the men around the fire, they all would have been alive during the war years. The king nodded.  He made no reply, not exactly the engaged response I had been hoping for, where we would admire each other’s people and I would hear stories of pilots found. My offer of thanks was barely acknowledged, maybe because he had not been a part of that operation or because that is their way of receiving gratitude. It was still a special moment.

As we left, our guide was excited that we got to see the chief and elders, as they were not always available. Their generation is dying out and soon none will remain with the tribe’s headhunter history. I felt the same about my father’s history; few remain to tell the story that was rapidly sinking until my journey began.

This story is an excerpt from Mary Clark’s book, “Landing in My Present,” about the premature loss of her flying father and details her trip to follow his WWII footsteps in India and China.  It is now available through Hellgate Press, Amazon, and other book outlets.   She may be contacted at maryclarktraveler@gmail.com.

 

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My book is available for pre-order

It’s really happening! My book about my emotional journey to rediscover my flying father through retracing his WWII footsteps in India and China is close to publication. “Landing in My Present” is now available for pre-sale at my publisher’s website.  You can also read the first 25 pages there. The price is discounted by 30% off the list price.  The book and ebook will be on Amazon and other book platforms within the week and I’ll let you know when that happens.  I can’t believe the finish line is in sight.

https://www.hellgatepress.com/product/landing-in-my-present-mary-walker-clark/

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La Feria and Chocolate con Churros

I don’t eat much fried food.  For some reason, it’s always been easy for me to avoid the array of fried sweets at county fairs.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love sweets but it’s the fried part that’s not enticing.  This righteous attitude changed in Seville, Spain when I was introduced to the Chocolate con Churros, a local favorite.

Seville is one of the most beautiful towns in Spain with its narrow streets, white washed buildings and flowers trailing off of balconies. It hosts two major events – Holy Week and La Feria.  Many more tourists come for the Holy Week parades than La Feria which allows the fair to be more of a local event. Without prior planning, we learned on a walking tour of Seville that La Feria was opening that April evening and we should not miss it.  Our guide instructed us to “dress up”, wear our finest, and to get ready to dance.

Following instructions, we pulled out the fanciest clothes we could muster from our carry-on suitcases, meaning slacks and a scarf.  Buses took participants from town center to the fairgrounds.  Our guide had warned us that the festivities didn’t start until midnight but to get there by 10 in order to eat and wander. Of course, 10 pm is late for us to even be up, much less beginning an evening out, but we were getting used to the later nights in Spain.

On the bus, local women were decked out in long flowing skirts and flowers in their hair, an early indication of what was to come.

Caseta at La Feria

Una Caseta at La Feria

The Seville fairgrounds are transformed during La Feria.  Hundreds of individual casetas or tented spaces are set up side by side, some sponsored by families, some by businesses.  Inside were the invited, seated at long tables, being served the traditional fair food of a Pescaito dinner of fried prawns, baby squids and clams and rebujito drinks made from Manzanilla Sherry and lemonade, an easy drink to down. Guide books warned that the drink is deceptively strong and to drink cautiously.  We peered in through the openings of the tied back door curtains, wishing it were our families enjoying the meal.   As visitors, we could join in the public booths, serving the same foods and pitchers of rebujitos but without the need for an invitation.

About 11:45 pm, the fifteen streets of the fairgrounds began to fill with those who had finished their meals.  The local orchestra played its last piece and members dispersed.  Overhead, I could see many lights strung across the streets but they remained unlit.  At the stroke of midnight, a great cheer rang out as the switch was pulled and lights everywhere came on, as if the night were dawning.  And the real music and dancing began.

I do love Flamenco dancing.  Its sensuous twirls require delicate hand movements reaching in the air, clapping, fingers snapping following the beat of the singer, guitar and sometime the beat of a seco or dry stick.  Heals click against the floors. It can be performed alone or with a male or female partner.  I have paid to see professional Flamenco dancers and singers but at la Feria, much of the dancing was in the streets, available for all to see or even join in.  We stopped wherever the crowd circled around dancers, clapping and swaying with the singing.  Women dancing with women was more common and the dance easily accommodates this arrangement.  In the larger, corporate casetas, bands played and guests stuck their heels on dance floors.

It was a wondrous evening and most participants seemed prepared to dance through the night.  By 2 a.m. however, it was enough for us and we rode the bus back into the city.  As we left the bus, there it was, on the street corner, a lit oasis, a Chocolateria, a portable food stand that follows the fairs all over Spain selling Chocolate con Churros.  It was industrial size and would be open all night, catching the party crowd as they headed home, hoping they were as hungry as we were.  As a chocoholic, my husband was in heaven.  We all ordered the traditional Chocolate con Churros.  Note it was chocolate with churros, not churros with chocolate.  This meant an emphasis on the chocolate, a thick creamy cup of dark chocolate made for dipping the freshly fried donut like churros.  We didn’t even think about the calories.

 

It was after 3 before we got back to our apartment, tired but full.  La Feria would continue every night that week, a testament to the dedication of the Sevillan people to a good time.  We were happy to have experienced such an evening, but it was the chocolate con churros that we would continue to search for during the remainder of our Spain trip even if it meant staying up half the night.  They were that good.

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Hike to Tigers Nest Monastery is Spiritual Effort

 

What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and Big Ben to London, the Tigers Nest Monastery is to Bhutan – the country’s most recognized monument.  It has all the features of an historic wonder.  Location is stunning – over 10,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the Himalaya Mountains.  History is engaging – where Buddhism got its start in the country.  Beautiful building– white washed walls with wooden and gold trim. Add in a pilgrimage site for many devout Buddhists and you have an incredibly varied crowd at the trail’s start, all searching the mountains above to find our destination two miles away with a 1700 foot rise in altitude.

We arrived early at the trail head, hoping to avoid some of the expected crowds.  Amongst the trees were donkeys for hire, walking sticks for sale and patient guides already trying to round up their groups.

At the beginning of the trail to Tigers Nest

My brother, his wife, my husband and I stayed close to Tisiring, who had accompanied us since our arrival.  Foreigners cannot enter Bhutan without hiring a guide and driver in advance and having their itinerary approved, complete with hotels – all prepaid.  It is a tightly controlled tiny country that knows it cannot maintain its peaceful ambiance and incredible beauty if tourists were allowed to freely enter.  Our visa to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan was for only 5 days, the exact number of days we had paid for.

Wisely, our hike to the Tigers Nest Monastery was scheduled for our fourth day, allowing us to adjust to the high altitude. Clear skies promised unparalleled views and warned of the need to dress in layers in order to shed as the day warmed and the hike intensified.  I couldn’t see our destination but knew it was nestled far above.  We began the hike, surrounded by a group of three elderly nuns with shaved heads and others from Taiwan, whose primary purpose for the visit was to worship from that sacred space.  Some did not appear fit enough for the climb but the determination in their faces said otherwise.

     In the traditional Bhutanese way, Tisiring walked with his hands clasped behind him, maintaining a gentle pace.  The first half of the trail was steeper, requiring stops at the turnouts.  We moved ahead of the crowd from Taiwan.  Gratefully, the cool mountain air helped with our energy level.  My sister-in-law, concerned from the beginning about the altitude, needed to return to the trailhead with our guide.  Since the trail was well marked, the remaining three persevered.  Halfway up, riders on donkeys turned around at a tea house.  The monastery was now visible but still distant.

 

The trail leveled out a bit and filled with freshly strung prayer flags.  We had seen the brightly colored strands all over Bhutan, placed on special occasions to release the prayers contained in the writings as the flags’ edges frayed.   Over a year’s time, the colors would pale until a new strand was mounted.

Also along the trail were small painted clay cylindrical cones or “tsa-tsas made for bereaved Buddhist families to remember their loved ones.  They are placed in spiritual locations, often favorite ones of the deceased.  Cairns also marked the path.

The Tiger’s Nest is where Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, was said to appear some 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. He meditated for three years in caves and then worked to convert the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery commemorating this beginning was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we saw have been replaced several times because of disasters. Even though it no longer serves as a monastery, it is featured in National Geographic’s book of “Sacred Spaces of a Lifetime.”

We arrived at the lookout overlooking the monastery, where most classic photos are taken including ours.  At that point, we were worried about my sister-in-law and decided to turn around without entering the monastery.  I’m sure we missed a spiritual experience, but the trek had already been full of them.  On the way down, we passed the Taiwanese group again with the elderly nuns determinedly pushing upward.  Families with three generations moved forward as a unit, often with a picnic lunch in hand. Young international trekkers easily passed the slower walkers.  Many hikers anxiously asked us how much farther it was.  For those near the top, we were honest – “not much more.”  For those towards the bottom, we just said, “a ways”, thinking some needed a reality check.

On the way down, we stopped at the tea house, enjoying the warm drink under crystal blue skies.  A woman overheard us talking, recognizing our American accents.  She came over to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving, a salutation we all recognized as out of place. But it was Thanksgiving, one that would be remembered, not for the table of food nor the family gathering nor the fall weather.  It was easy to give thanks that day for something different – nature’s handiwork, man’s expression of faith and his desire to experience it.

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Fraser Island and the Lone Dingo

“I’m sure we will see some there,” Carol, our Australian friend, assured us. She was referring to Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island stretching 75 miles across, and to seeing Dingoes, Australia’s wild dogs that number around 200 on the island.  These are considered some of the last of the “pure” Dingoes that had not cross bred with the country’s dogs. The numbers have declined in recent years and sightings have become rarer.  But Carol was confident. “We’ve been there many times and have always seen some.”

Fraser Island not only has miles of beaches to drive but also sand roads cut into the island’s interior.  To maneuver deep sand roads requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and Carol’s husband, Rob, had the perfect one – a Toyota Land Cruiser. These vehicles are popular in the outback of Australia and anywhere off the beaten path and Rob’s would serve us well driving on the island.

Before crossing to Fraser Island via the small Mantaray ferry, Rob pulled into a gas station to deflate his tires, a necessary adjustment for sand driving.  The flatter the tire, the less the tire sinks into the soft sand.  Driving straight is also encouraged to keep all front and back tires in the same rut but we would find it hard to resist an occasional wheelie.

 

When we arrived on the island, Rob took us on a spin on the nearly deserted beach, crisscrossing, speeding as if on a joyride.  The 50 mph speed limit felt like 70.  Rob offered the wheel to my friend, Mary Grace, and me.  We took turns, concentrating on staying in the ruts over a small hill of sand, avoiding the driftwood, accelerating on the open areas, always keeping an eye out for a dingo.Soon, we turned onto a deep sand road into the island, passing through a tiny community with one restaurant, searching for Lake McKenzie.  I hadn’t expected a rain forest in the sand with kauri pine trees dominating the landscape. The maze of roads was confusing with only occasional wooden signs pointing to different destinations. First stop at Central Station on the Wonggoolba Creek was to explore the deserted logging village, closed since the 1950s.  Several other Land Cruisers had parked amongst the trees.  Native Butchulla women used the creek area for birthing but were moved out by the timber industry.  The Butchulla people only recently received their native title rights from the Australian Federal Court in 2014 for hunting and fishing on the island.  We ate our picnic lunch in the company of sand monitors or goanas, very large lizards that hang out in tourist areas.  No dingoes approached.

Our next stop, Lake McKenzie, is considered a “perched” lake, formed by organic matter that has hardened in a depressed area.  It has the clearness of a mountain lake but with sandy shores and only 300 feet of altitude. Pushed by the need to return to the ferry landing in time for the last boat, we could only take a brief swim in the beautiful cold waters. 

On our drive back through the dense forest of trees, we began to give Carol a hard time about not seeing any dingoes.  “You promised,” we said.  Dingoes are a feral dog and yet can be domesticized.  But because of their reputation for common attacks on livestock and rare attacks on humans, we didn’t want to get too close.  Due to the large number of visitors and small area, Fraser Island is the epicenter of attacks on humans, with the most recent one just a year ago at a campground. Fraser Island visitors are warned not to feed the dingoes as that brings them too close to human activity.

After breaking out onto the beach again, we were hurrying back to the ferry, when suddenly, Carol calls out, “there’s one!”  And there it was, a lone dingo standing at the edge of the sand dunes, seemingly paying no attention to our quick stop, nor to the lowering of windows and cameras snapping away. It may have planned a quick trip into the water to catch a fish and the Land Cruiser stood in the way. Or it was looking for others in his pack. But after a short jaunt down the beach, it turned away and disappeared into the grasses.   

There’s something incredibly exciting about unexpectedly encountering an animal in the wild.  For just a moment, nature’s path crossed our civilized human path, this time giving us a glimpse of life as a dingo. As the dingo numbers decrease on Fraser Island, these encounters will diminish.  But in the meantime, Carol smiled at us in triumph.  “We always see one,” she said.  And she was right.

 

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Stanley, Idaho and The Sawtooth Mountains

Sawtooth Mountains from Iron Creek Trail

My cousin, Ron Walker, has lived in Boise, Idaho for 50 years, having migrated north after early life in Texas. He’s been there long enough to watch house prices skyrocket from new residents looking for quality of life and affordability of homes. His children grew up with the great outdoors almost in their backyard and the family took full advantage of the setting. It made sense to ask him his favorite place in Idaho for our trip out West last summer. His answer – the small town of Stanley in the Sawtooth Mountains. It was great advice.When I write small town of Stanley, I mean small. In 2010, the town sported 63 citizens, down from 100 in 2000. It is a remnant from early trapping days that just happens to be in a stunning location at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains with the Salmon River flowing through. Some of its wooden buildings look straight out of Hollywood’s Western sets with flat fronts and planked porch entries. The few side roads off the main highway are dirt and there are no street signs.

View of Salmon River from our cabin

Most of the classic log cabin lodging in the area is along the Salmon River where we were most lucky to find one cabin for the one night we had available. It fronted the river allowing us to wave at the rafters headed out for a day or a week. Across the river, cows lazily feasted on the abundance of grass meadows and an occasional fisherman threw in his line. A fresh trout dinner on the riverside porch of the restaurant next door sealed the mountain air experience.We didn’t want the day to end as the descending sun illuminated nearby mountains in rust and white against the darkening blue shadows.

The highly recommended Stanley Baking Company, found simply by the numbers of cars parked around it, had a group of early risers the next morning waiting on the front porch for the bakery to open. We chatted with a group of women who had just finished a six-day run down the Salmon River. It was their 4th year they had crossed the country for the experience, and they were already talking of next year’s run. I envied their obvious sense of accomplishment. After breakfast, my husband and I drove to the Iron Creek Trailhead to begin the “hike of a lifetime” according to Ron.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Sawtooth Wilderness lay side by side with a long history of protection.  As with many areas in the West, we would be walking on highly politicized paths. In 1968, the proposal of the American Smelting and Refining Company to dig an open pit mine for the extraction of molydenum (a chemical element used in steel alloys) spurred Idaho Congressmen, including Senator Frank Church, to have Congress create the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1971. President Obama signed an act expanding the wilderness area in 2015. The Sawtooth Wilderness is characterized by high granite peaks, separated by narrow valleys, giving a “sawtooth” look. Fifty of the peaks are over 10,000 feet with hundreds of high mountain lakes scattered throughout.

After filling out our wilderness permit, we began the relatively easy first three miles, passing from the Recreation area into the Wilderness. We passed signs that prohibited bicycles and drones, a rather odd combination.

Despite the July date, snow remained on the mountain side and more appeared as we ascended. At a sharp left turn, the path changed dramatically as the elevation increased, taking us upwards toward our Alpine lake destination. Young hikers passed us, but we had no reason to hurry. With a view at every turn, we found many excuses to stop, look, and listen.

At the sign for “Alpine Lake”, we veered off the main path that then continued to Sawtooth Lake. Most hikers, especially the younger ones, had the larger lake as their destination but not us. Hiking in your late 60’s is different. We’ve learned there are many possible turn-around points, depending on your stamina, the heat of the day, and how your hip is feeling. This Alpine Lake had the classic mountain lake ambiance – a quiet that seemed to amplify the human voice, birds flying above, slight cool breeze, clean air, blue skies and big boulders fronting the clear water. We rested near a couple of tents whose occupants were apparently out exploring.

After a snack of apples and nuts, we reluctantly turned around as we were expected in Boise that afternoon and the hiking traffic was picking up. There’s always a sense of satisfaction descending from a strenuous hike, noting the heavy breathing of the hikers ascending. And, the views are different and often more beautiful on the way down. Checking my phone at the end of the trail revealed a 9 mile hike, 20,325 steps and 32 floors of elevation. My orthopedic surgeon would be proud.

How Stanley has avoided the extreme development of nearby Sun Valley, I don’t know. But my cousin was right. It is a jewel of a location abounding in outdoor opportunities and beauty. It is my hope that such a small community can continue to hold out against any large-scale expansion. Its beauty deserves protection.

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Tea in a Moroccan Berber Tent

Mary Clark, Tina Smith, Betty Swasko, and Mary Grace West with two Berber children inside tent

Being asked to tea in Northern Africa and the Middle East is a common practice, whether the hosts know you or not. When our driver stopped by the side of the road in Jordan for me to get a photo of a nearby shepherd, the herder smiled readily for the camera and asked if he could make us some tea. Since there were no nearby houses, I had to assume he had the makings for the hot drink in his bag draped over his shoulders. Sadly, we were behind schedule and could not join him. I did have time for tea with a seller of jewelry in Jerusalem, my cousin’s neighbor in Tunisia, storekeepers in Egypt, and after a massage in Chefchouen, Morocco. But one of the most memorable tea times was with a Nomadic Berber family on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

Berbers are the proud indigenous people of Morocco and date back to 2500 B.C. They’ve lived through the Egyptians, Romans, French and Arabs who brought Islam to the area. Approximately 60% of the population of Morocco, including their long ruling King Mohammed VI, are at least part Berber. Today, the Berbers are divided into three main sects, each with its own dialect. Until the 1980’s the Berber language was not allowed in school but that has changed. Many traditional Berbers live in the valleys and mountains and are farmers or herders. But there remains some who live near or in the desert and who will move with their herds during the changing seasons. A few still go by caravan deep into the Sahara for trade.

Our driver had encouraged us to take tea with a Berber family. We drove through the strong, sandy desert wind to an area near dunes with scattered traditional tents. Heavy, black woven textiles made by the Berber women from goat’s wool, formed the walls and covers of the tents. A flap could be tied back to allow entrance. One of the tents already had a van in front of it, indicating other tourists were inside. Houssain  parked our van in front of an area with three tents huddled together. We got out and simply waited.

Our driver and guide, Houssain Ait Mhamed
with two Berber children

Two children popped out and stared. I made a common traveler’s mistake by immediately pulling my phone out to take some pictures. The children turned away and tried to hide. I could tell by the look of our guide that I had committed a faux pas. He approached them slowly, smiling, chatting, charming them as he pulled out some candy. They happily responded and were then willing to pose with him for a photo. Soon their mother ducked out of a back tent and indicated we should enter the largest tent. She was, obviously, accustomed to visitors dropping in.

Inside the tent, beautiful hand-woven rugs covered the sand. The bedding from the night before had been rolled up and formed a soft bank for us to sit against at the edge of the tent. A small covered table awaited the tea to be served. Reds dominated the fabric.

The children had become downright friendly and wanted to play with our phones. After a few pictures, we let them look at the photos, but they knew their way around and quickly found games to play. After some time, the mother entered the tent with a tray of Moroccan tea and sweets, both very sugary to give energy to the family and visitors. Although asked to stay, she declined and left us with the food and children. Houssain  explained that the Berber women, by tradition, would never stay in a room where there was a man that was not part of the family. The men of the family were absent as they had taken their sheep and camels to find water and grass.

As we drank our tea and sampled the sweets, I listened to the strong wind outside and could see the dust swirling around through the open flap. It would be a familiar sound to the family. Thanks to the sturdy woven walls, the air inside remained clear enough that I had no need for my asthma inhaler.

We asked Houssain how much Moroccan dirham we should leave for the experience. His response was however much we wanted to. We asked what was normal or standard. His response was that it was up to us. I don’t remember what we left but we hoped it would be perceived as generous. The children were sad to give up our phones but smiled and waved as we left. Their mother hurried them inside as they awaited the next car to arrive. The desert people have always been welcoming of strangers but today it is the strangers who help support the family. It was our pleasure to do so.

Mary Walker Clark is a retired attorney turned travel writer. Her stories may be found at her blog, Mary Clark, Traveler and her podcasts at KETR, 88.9. She lives in Paris and may be contacted at maryclarktraveler@gmail.com

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Yoga in the Wild Brings Unexpected Discoveries

Most travelers incorporate special interests into their trips. Some even make it the focus of the vacation. Golfers check off prestigious courses. New York City visitors come for the Broadway Shows. For history buffs, Civil War battlegrounds attract a large following. I have an older friend who will go out of the way to see bridges that he’s interested in. And one of my regular traveling buddies always insists on massages regardless of the country, which experiences deserve its own column. I’m a yoga aficionado and seek out notices on coffee shop bulletin boards for local yoga workouts. In Cancun for a family destination wedding, I joined early risers at a beach kiosk to greet the sun with yoga morning salutations. The leader was an energetic young man who added jumps from floor to standing for many of the positions, a choice I soon avoided. But I enjoyed seeing the upside-down beach and ocean from a downward dog position after being sure no other participant was behind me. I’ve shown off my warrior stance in a yurt in New Mexico, the large common space on an Emirates Airbus A380 to Dubai, and the Siddahayatan Retreat in Windom, Texas. But my favorite yoga experience was “Yoga in the Wild” offered by “Get In the Wild” tours near Arches and Capitol Reef Nationals Parks in Utah. It included much than yoga. The tour popped up in my search for interesting outings in northern Utah. Photos of a side plank (with one arm supporting the body and the other arm in the air) at the edge of a cliff with a beautiful view was enticing to me but not my height averse husband. After a phone conference with the owners, we were assured the yoga locations could be adjusted according to the participants’ “comfort level”.

Christopher Hagedon
Melissa Hagedon

At mid-morning on a cloudy October day, we met Christopher and Melissa Hagedon, a perfectly suited adventure tour couple. Christopher knows his geology and Melissa her botany. We were in the San Rafael Swell that is managed by the Bureau of Land management (BLM) and was designated a Federal Wilderness in March 2019. Registered guides are required to seek spaces where it is unlikely to encounter another tour. This was especially appealing after the crowds at Arches and Canyonland National Parks.

Before we could throw out our yoga mats, Christopher and Melissa had something to show us. We hiked the rocky hill in front of us, without benefit of a trail – over large boulders, down sandy embankments, quickly moving through a marsh area that had a quicksand suction in the middle. The week before a boy scout on the tour got stuck in the sand, requiring the use of a rope to pull him out. All I could think of was the old Tarzan movies when a character slowly disappeared as the quicksand sucked him downward to the horror of the TV viewers, including me.

Our destinations were two caves, a large and a small one, with wide open-air openings. Native Americans had long discovered both. Their 700 to 4000 year- old pictographs of elongated stick figures and animal outlines adorned both caves. One cave had an ocular opening, meaning a round break through the stone to the sky. It felt like an eye into the universe above. Christopher assured us we were one of very few hikers to ever see these paintings as they are not on a map and access to the land is limited. He discovered the caves without help and had never seen other hikers in the area. I understood why native Americans spent time in the caves – isolated, safe, comfortable, nearby water source. We had lunch with their spirits.
Coming out on an outcropping of rock, Melissa announced it was time for yoga. Despite the hard and uneven surface, the view across Robbers Roost, a hideout destination for criminals on horseback, was wide and deep. In the distance, the snow-covered Henry Mountains held their own secrets. Above, clouds moved with the wind as cliff swallows rode the currents.   The workout was not intense. Melissa may have worried about our stamina and balance, especially on the rocks. But it was enough that the time spent at the end in the dead man’s pose was deeply relaxing. My mind tried to return to all that I needed to do back home, but a bird sound or br eeze brought me back to the present moment. Yoga was made for those moments.

Mary Walker Clark is a retired attorney turned travel writer. Her stories may be found at her blog, Mary Clark, Traveler and her podcasts at KETR, 88.9. She lives in Paris and may be contacted at maryclarktraveler@gmail.com.

“Get in the Wild” site

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