Friday, July 31, Algeciras, Spain

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The blue medina of Chefchouen. By tradition everyone within the walled part of the city paints their home blue. Note the mountain to the right.

I’m not sure now which is my favorite place in Morocco, Essaoura or Chefchouen. This city is small enough to be a community, but large enough to have many charms.

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Like many Moroccan cities this one had its raison detre from a spring. The building in the distance is the place where the water emerges from the mountain. On hot days residents and visitors gather here to play in the clear, cold water.

I managed to climb to the “Spanish mosque”, paradoxically a structure built during the Spanish occupation in 1912 (Spain left in 1956 as did France). It’s on a knoll about 1,500 meters above the city.

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The mosque.
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Kids playing in the spring water just below the outtake.
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Some of the mountains that loom over the city.

I worried about how I was going to get to Spain today. I inquired about buses to Tangiers but was told there was only one, departing at 3pm. That would be much too late. I wasn’t sure if I could get across the Mediterranean in time with that late start. The idea of staying overnight in Tangiers–a city with a bad reputation–bothered me. I spent considerable time researching this leg of my trip on the internet, but most of the results were unhelpful. Most only discussed transiting southward fromTangiers. There was one brief comment on a chat site saying that there were many unofficial buses leaving Chefchouen, that one only had to go to the bus station and look around.

Which is what i did. And, thankfully, that comment turned out to be spot on. I got to the station around 9:15 to find a bus waiting. By 9:45 we were on our way. Three hours later (an hour shorter than Lonely Planet lists) we rolled into Tangiers.

The Tangiers bus terminal was unprepossessing, with no covered building, just a few bus parking spots. And no blue taxis waiting. I needed a ride to the ferry. There were two guys hanging out asking if anyone needed a ride. I heard stories of rapacious Tangiers taxi drivers who would rip you off given half a chance, so I was wary. But these guys seemed harmless and friendly so i let them importune me into a $4.50 fare to the port. My guy didn’t speak any English, and for a while I thought we might be headed for the airport instead of the seaport, but a bit of pantomiming verified that we were going seaward.

The van the guy had was a wreck. To open the sliding door required reaching inside to find a handle that worked. The outside handle was long gone. This smashed and dented little piece of the 1990’s puttered out of the ‘station’. And puttered right into a gas station. My fare was going to buy the gas for the trip I realized. A violation of etiquette I think it would be fair to say, but I liked the driver and went along with the irregularity. With four litres of petrol on board we scooted out onto the competitive avenues of Tangiers.

Soon the port loomed in the distance. Sometimes on my trips I marvel at the places I go. I was slightly awestruck at the notion of hopping on a ferry and crossing over to a new continent. The day was beautiful with blue skies and temperate seaside weather. I found the ticket place and gave them my $44 fare. I expected the third degree from the passport people. After all one of the biggest stories in the world right now is the migration of people across the Med. But, at least in Tangier security was casual. They xrayed my bag and painting but no one seemed to be really looking at the screen. And no one asked where I was residing in Spain (I’d forgotten to write down my airbnb address in Algeciras).

There were only two downers. One, there were no outside seats on the ferry. My only view of the Med was through the dirty windows. Two, we weren’t going to Algeciras. Tarifa, a few miles west of Algeciras was the only available destination. I asked if there was another ferry somewhere else in Tangiers that might take me to my preferred destination. No, was the terse answer.

It only took an hour to broach the distance to Europe. Now i had to find a bus to take me from Tarifa east.

But no, I didn’t. There was a bus sitting right outside the terminal waiting for us. As best I could deduce, after the fact, the dock at Algeciras was temporarily unavailable so the company supplied a free shuttle bus to Algeciras. In 30 minutes i was where I wanted to be.

The place I’m staying at is the home of a young woman who regularly rents via airbnb. I intend to stay here for three days, in order to visit nearby Gibraltar, and to slow down my pace a bit.


Thursday, July 30, Chefchaouen, Morocco

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The temple at Volubilis, outpost of the Roman Empire.

I’m in a beautiful small city on a hillside in Northern Morocco. This should be my last day in this country as my plan is to ferry over to Algeciras, Spain, tomorrow. This place is another gem, friendly, relatively cool after the suffering of Fez, small enough to be manageable but big enough to contain lots of interesting little alleyways and places.

I spent one day at Fez transporting myself to Volubilis, above. I’d hoped to hook up with other travelers but was surprised to learn that there is very little tourist interest in the Roman ruins (abandoned by Rome in 285 A.D. for unknown reasons). My only option was to hop a train to the nearby city of Meknes where I’d hire a “big” taxi for the 45 minute drive to the site. But even in Meknes I was disappointed. No one else was there (I waited over an hour in  105 degree heat) to share the cab. I ended up paying the entire 30 bucks myself. Once we got there the driver waited for me.

I can check this one off my list of Roman/Greek sites:  Corinth, the Parthenon, Troy, Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Antioch, Carthage, Buthrotum (Albania), Evora, Mertola, and one ephemeral trip to Rome. That’s the positive side. The negative side is the penetrating heat that I endured for 90 minutes–which was all I could abide–for the pleasure of boasting one more bit of history ingested.

The place is large and the foundations of the entire city are still there:  manufacturing areas (mostly weaving and crushing olive oil), plebian and patrician housing (with several nice mosaics), the forum, the basilica (where laws were developed and enforced), a bit of the aqueduct. Much to see. My guide (another 25 bucks) sped through the place either to avoid being fried alive or to get back for one more paying customer.

I staggered back to the cab for the trip back to the train station, thence to Fez. Under better conditions it would have been a pleasure; this was pedantic masochism.

I was happy to get out of Fez, which seemed fetid, miserably hot, of course, and lacking in the charms of other Moroccan cities. But much of my reaction, detailed previously, had little to do with the city and more to do with my lack of planning and basic caution.

Wednesday I screwed up again, costing myself $3.50 needless taxi cost. I assumed I could get a train to Chefchaouen, but found out after I got to the station, that I should have gone to the bus station. The bus to Chefchaouen was sold out, I was told, upon my arrival. Try the place next door; they go there, too. But they were sold out for the entire day. Now I was envisioning another day in Fez, something akin to another day of Common Core Training. But it turned out the first bus company had seats at 2:30, three hours hence. I found a place to park myself and waited.

Ten minutes later a guy offered me a seat on a 12:15 bus for another $13. I was tempted. Save three hours? But my cheapskate heart won out; I passed. Later I saw him talking with two other tourists who, apparently took his offer. Who knew there would be ticket scalpers at the Fez bus station?

At 1:30 a guy approached me.

“You have ticket to Chefchaouen?” he inquired as I finished off my bottle of Sprite. On the chair next to me was my multi-kilo backpack and the painting I’ve been hauling all over Morocco. Every time I thought about actually going somewhere I glowered over at that blue-black bag and squirmed a bit, thinking about the struggle to get it on my back and weave through the crowded aisles of the station.

But this guy was offering me an immediate seat on a bus to my destination. I dug my ticket out of my wallet and showed it to him, holding on firmly lest he decide to take off and run with it.

“Come, there is bus,” he told me. I bolted out of my chair, donned my backpack and warily followed this guy to a bus. They stowed my backpack and I was on my way. The air conditioning cut the heat, but did not entirely allay its affects, but the seat was soft and, most important, I was on my way out of this crummy conurbation.

It was too hot to do much reading but I did get a partial nap.

About four hours into our trip we stopped at a fork in the road. To the right I could see a city smashed against then side of a mountain. I leaned over and asked the guy sitting across the aisle, “Chefchaouen”. He nodded and gestured towards the front of the bus. My destination was directly ahead, he indicated.

Two minutes later we were on our way again. A guy approached me.

“Ticket?” he asked.

I gave him a quizzical look. I pulled out my ticket and showed it to him.j

“This bus not going to Chefchaouen,” he told me.

My face dropped. A young guy had just occupied the seat next to me.

“You should have gotten off there,” he said. “They make announcement but it is in Arabic and you don’t understand.”

“Don’t worry,” he added. “You can get out ahead and get ride to Chefchaouen.”

OK, I thought, just another adventure. It was getting toward 6pm, a welcome development since the temperature was dropping. And the montane locale helped, too. At least I wasn’t going to boil when I ultimately got off the bus.

Five minutes later we came to another fork in the road and the bus stopped to evict me and my bag/painting. A nice big bus was just passing through the intersection, too late for me, but a hopeful sign. My destination was easily visible from the road, but it was at least 1,000 ft. above where we were parked, a long, arduous hike if that turned out to be necessary

“I can catch bus here?” I asked to bus guy who was unloading my worldly goods. He nodded. This meant either 1)he had no idea what I was talking about in this strange accented English; or b)there was a bus.

At the fork in the road was a dusty little swath of land that apparently formed a sort of informal bus stop/hitchhiking spot. There were about four young men standing, peering at oncoming traffic. Several taxis passed, all loaded to the gunnels. Two elderly men sat in the shade of a purposeless brick wall, seemingly headed for Chefchaouen but unwilling to devote much energy to getting there.

They said there would be a bus, I told myself. I waited. Memories of my hitchhiking days came to mind, especially the time I spent a half day in the broiling sun trying to get a ride in some middle California burg in the early 70’s.

A Puegout van appeared in the distance. The driver seemed to be checking us out, me and the guy standing next to me. (The other guys had all gotten lifts from passing drivers). He slowed. The other guy hopped in. I stealthily edged myself toward his back door, trying to be inquisitive without being pushy. Would he consider me as a worthy passenger?

He did. I hopped in. Off we went up the mountain. And 30 minutes later I was walking into the medina, seeking my lodging. I got lost for a while. Some guy, looking to make a dinar, tried to lead me along, but it became quickly apparent that he didn’t know where my place was.

But eventually I found it and here I am. I had a delightful evening wandering through the medina, which seems like one of the best ones I’ve trod.

Tomorrow I’ll try to ferry over to Europe.

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A piece of a mosaic from the dining room floor of a patrician home in Volubilis.
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What’s left of the aqueduct, which linked a mountainside spring with the city.
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The roman road makers knew their craft. This is the drainage at the center of the road (which you can see to the left and right). The road stands as it did two thousand years ago except for a little bit of erosion around the main paving stones.

Monday, July 27, Fez, Morocco

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My second lifetime attempt at a selfie. Why I’m sitting in the Fez train station taking a picture of myself will be explained below. The yellow tape is binding an expensive painting I bought in Essaouira by a well known Moroccan artist, Mohammed Tabal. You can look at his images on Google. 

This will seem like a depressing entry but I assure you I’m in good spirits despite a series of discouraging events.

It started when I put my trousers on this morning in my room in the Rabat medina. The realization came to me that I’d gained weight on this trip so far. That has never happened to me on a summer trip. This means my blood pressure will be elevated throughout the school year with all sorts of health implications. Not good news.

Last night I went on Airbnb and requested a room in Fez. The place had only two reviews, one positive, the other ambivalent. The latter party said there had some confusion about the fee for the room either because of a miscommunication (the landlady didn’t speak English but her daughter did) or because the lady was trying to hint for some added money beyond what she advertised on the site. The location was ideal and the price acceptable so I ignored any doubts and asked for a booking. I got back an odd message. Was I alone; and what did I expect to pay? The second question made no sense since the price was clearly printed on the Airbnb site. I replied, noting the posted cost. There was no reply by the time I went to bed, nor was there anything when I woke in the morning.

At the Rabat train station I located some untrustworthy wifi, good enough for me to determine that I’d gotten no confirmation of my reservation. I emailed the lady before my train left. When we got to Fez I got a confusing message that I ultimately determined to say, “Please find somewhere else to rent”. I can only surmise that the lady had been hinting for some additional cash, which I, of course, declined to proffer.

That left me with no place to stay in Fez. But there were dozens of other Airbnb listings (and I could have easily found a cheap hotel in the medina). I requested a place, and waited for a reply. It took two and a half hours before I got a confirmation. But my troubles weren’t over. The medina in Fez is renowned as the most difficult to navigate in the Arabic world. Without specific directions to my place I had to sit tight. Send me directions, I emailed my putative host. There was no reply for nearly an hour. Adding to my woes was the fact that I was dependent on the wifi of a little restaurant in the station, a signal that seemed to weaken as the day lengthened. I wasn’t certain that the directions–if they ever came–would show up on my phone. And there is always the worry that my battery will die before I get the email.

At 5:30 the directions came; but that wasn’t the end of the story. For some reason the text message was truncated.

“Take a taxi to the medina and get off at the square near the post office. From there take…….”.

That was all that showed. I nervously answered with another request. Could you email me the directions? I was sure this would take another hour, but, thankfully, two minutes later I had all I needed. But that was merely the good news of a very bad situation because, you see, I noticed a text message from TMobile right after the message from my host.

You’ve been paying exorbitant (my word) roaming fees, it said, don’t you want to stop them? Apparently somewhere on my trip I’d hit some button that opened me to a stunning bill. I can’t bring myself to tell anyone how much it was. Suffice to say that it depressed the hell out of me.

After absorbing that shock I went out front and negotiated a reasonable fare for a trip to the medina. Within a half hour I was safely ensconced in my dorm room.

But more misery awaited.

In the cool of the evening I sallied out for an exploratory walk through a portion of the medina. After about twenty minutes of wandering I found myself negotiating a jam-packed trip through endless shops selling oils, dates, clothing, ceramics, rugs, fresh orange juice, jewelry, restaurant meals, plants, vegetables, fruits, meat, and just about anything you can think of.

In other words a typical moroccan medina.

And as many times as I’ve made similar journeys there is always the unsettling realization that most of these people are eking out a living that barely sustains them. IOW they are poor; and I am relatively wealthy. Any sensible merchant in this compressed universe would feel some anger at the many tourists who look, but don’t buy. Which is most of us. One or two sales in a ten hour day would be, from my observation, typical. It’s a lot of rejection to handle. And too little income to live on.

So when I saw four young tourists fleeing one importuning guy–and doing it with archetypical contempt–I wasn’t surprised when I heard the guy cursing the departing visitors.

But then he turned to me and began importuning me. I was tired. I was depressed about the lost phone money. I was conscious that I’d already spent a great deal of money on this trip. I wanted nothing of whatever he was offering. But he refused to take no for answer. He was in my face trying to dislodge some of my hard earned dinars. I tried my best to walk past him without saying anything but he was ultra-persistent, more so than anyone I’d heretofore met in Morocco. His only rival in my experience were some guys in the Dakar airport trying to carry my bag.

Then he began cursing me. And following me.

I tried dashing into one of the stalls to buy some sun screen.

He was waiting for me when I completed my purchase. The guys in the stall tried to help me; they sat the guy down and tried to convince him to leave me alone. They told me that this guy was a regular and that he often harassed tourists, trying to get fees as a medina guide.

I tried ignoring him, but just then I realized he was right behind me kicking me in the back of my feet. I darted into another stall. This place was similarly sympathetic to my problem. The guy tried to reassure me:  “Don’t worry. This place has good security, nobody can hurt you.” But I wasn’t mollified. I consented to check out the guys store, which was well stocked with the usual things, clothes, jewelry, ceramics. Guiltily I examined what they had knowing I had no intention of buying anything. I’m certain the proprietor thought I’d purchase something out of gratitude for his harboring me. I swear he looked chagrined when I fled, finally–hoping my pursuer was gone.

But he wasn’t. Within a minute or two he reappeared. He insisted I shake his hand, which I did. Then he asked for ‘a tip’. Now I was more frightened than ever. I refused the bribe and ducked into still another stall. This time I was able to leave the store and get close to my dormitory before he found me again. I bought some fresh orange juice from a vendor and asked for refuge in his little restaurant. The restaurant owner shielded me, saying he knew the guy to be, essentially, bad news.

Finishing my oj I sped toward my dorm. Safety. And the end of a long day.

Tomorrow I hope to go on a one day tour of local ruins.

Sunday, July 26, Rabat, Morocco

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The narrow alleyway’s of the Kasbah in Rabat.

I played the tourist in Rabat today visiting the beach, the kasbah, the medina, and the Roman ruins.

There are several nice beaches here but the best places to swim are in the river that divides Rabat from it's sister city, Sales.
There are several nice beaches here but the best places to swim are in the river that divides Rabat from it’s sister city, Sales.
In the second century BC this place was the capital of a Roman province.
In the second century BC this place was the capital of a Roman province.

The most common form of dress hereabouts (excepting the traditional islamic furnishings) are baseball caps with the logo of the New York Yankees. I must have seen 50 guys sporting this headgear; and I saw many such in Marrakech, too. Oddly the most common printed tee shirt is from Franklin and Marshall College. Since F&M is Gettysburg’s number one rival I find this particularly strange.

Tomorrow i head for Fez.

Saturday, July 25, Rabat, Morocco

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A cliffside prehistory drawing that we saw during our trip.

My terrific seven-day tour is over, I’m on my own again. We finished up back in Marrakech this morning. I did a terrible job of saying goodbye to my new friends at breakfast but that is the way things are with these experiences. We got quite close over a week of shared meals and joint suffering at the hands of Morocco’s heat, but our friendship is ephemeral. I doubt I’ll ever see any of them again.

I took a morning train to Rabat, the Moroccan capital and now occupy an Airbnb home in the medina. I can’t exactly express my wonderment at where I find myself. I lounged on the terrace of my host’s home, overlooking the narrow boulevards of this ancient place. Since we are less than a mile from the Atlantic it’s cool here. Like just about every other Moroccan city this one is dominated by the walled medina with it’s pulsing masses of folks trying to make their way through endless little shops. Just being here is exciting. I’m scheduled to spend two days here so I should be able to get a feel for the place. Lonely Planet doesn’t particularly like Rabat because so much of the city is beholden to politics. But the little bit I saw this evening seems enticing.

Rabat (like Marrakech) is growing outward. New apartment buildings spring up almost daily. The new neighborhoods look very middle class with supermarkets and shiny automobiles and clean shops that contrast sharply with the chaos of the medina. Our guide explained it concisely. Young moroccans don’t stay in the villages and small cities of the interior. There are no jobs there. Instead they migrate to a handful of conurbations like Casablanca (over 5 million), Marrakech (one million), and Rabat. You could say it’s Apple’s fault. The lure of cellphones and refrigerators and indoor plumbing demands hard cash. You can’t find that kind of moolah in the hinterland, so country kids become big city shopkeepers and bureaucrats.

One question I meant to ask but forgot:  the tallest building in all these cities is a mosque. I assume this is tradition or fiat, but the result is the same. Moroccan cities can’t expand upward so they spread laterally gobbling up farmland and the habitat of plants and animals. The skyscraper doesn’t seem to exist in Morocco (though I may have seen some in Casablanca a couple years ago, I’m not sure). Our guide said Morocco has a population of 30 million. By contrast Australia has 21 million. From what I can see on the streets the birthrate is robust. I wonder if there is an environmental price to pay in a country where you can’t build tall buildings.

Friday, July 24, Essaouira, Morocco

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Our group on the penultimate evening of our tour. Tomorrow we sleep in Marrakech.

If you ever get a chance to visit Morocco this is the city to see, cosmopolitan, cool (in both senses of the word), with wonderful shops. Every moroccan artist seems to have some work displayed here. Our guide says we are here in the slow season, that spring and fall are when this place is packed.

To get here we drove through Agadir, a frenetic, off-putting metropolis that I could have easily skipped. Next stop, Wednesday night, was a small seaside village. I was really looking forward to that since our guide told us we’d be bedding down in a tent near the ocean. What happened there was my most dramatic moment of this summer. The details are quite indelicate. You might want to skip this part:

To get to our tent we had to first endure a three hour walk in the blazing afternoon sun. Just to make things more interesting the guide hired a camel driver to accompany us. Originally the camel was supposed to take our bags but we couldn’t find him so the bags went with our van driver while we walked. The camel showed up 15 minutes into our trip, just early enough to strew our route with excrement that had to be dodged.

By the time we reached our destination we were all haggard. I chugged down some sort of soda that we bought at a roadside shop–something I would live to regret. At the tent we sat and had tea–another mistake for me. But then we finally got a chance to walk over to the beach for a half hour of body surfing. Wonderful. Last order of the day was dinner; moroccan soup and tajina. It was only at this point that I began to sense something was very wrong.

I was lying sprawled on a rectangular cushion, finishing my soup, when I realized that my insides were in turmoil. My thoughts immediately turned to that green bottle of soda, which I’d selected as the nearest thing to caffeine-free Sprite. No doubt, I realized, this was anything but sans caffeine. And the tea, I’d learned, had some caffeine, too. I needed a bathroom… The only one was up the hill in a little shack, a squat toilet with a small sink. I smiled to my fellow travelers and tried to quietly remove myself as quickly as possible. But when I got to the WC it was occupied. And outside the door were about eight jovial Moroccan guys who were apparently reprising the day’s events. I couldn’t really explain to them my problem so I just grinned and tried to grip my loins together to prevent disaster.

It didn’t work. As I stood there I realized I’d already lost the game. I could feel the trickle of excrement trailing down the inside leg of my swim trunks. I grinned some more. Finally the door opened. How could I step into this place without depositing my waste at the feet of these guys?

Somehow I managed that. But that was just the beginning of my woes. I had to get my trunks off without losing anything, then position myself over the small opening in the floor. My aim was not terrific (I haven’t used such a toilet in 8 years). I managed to get about 70% on target. The rest I pushed into the requisite entrance with the aid of a bucket of water in the corner.

But my bum was clotted with shit and there was no toilet paper. (I didn’t know you were supposed to bring your own). How could I get myself cleaned up? And what was I to do with my stained swim trunks? And how get by those guys outside without humiliating myself?

I used the water bucket and my left hand to clean my rear end, not perfect but reasonably clean. But then I faced the trial of putting my trunks back on.

The only saving grace I could think of was that I’d seen some guys washing the sand off their feet behind the WC at a hose bib. If I could get there the darkness (it was now past 10pm) and the water might provide a way out of this mess. I gingerly put back on my trunks and walked (grinning again) out past the eight moroccan guys. They looked at my quizzically. No doubt they’d heard my filling and refilling the water bucket and wondered what the devil I was doing in there. But no one said anything as I furtively headed for the back of the WC building.

Off came my trunks. On came the hose bib as I desperately tried to re-clean myself and at least dilute the excremental chunks on my clothing. It took a while but, by repeated dunking the trunks in a water bucket and by redoing my anal passage I got myself back to presentable shape. Just before I got my trunks back on one of the moroccan guys came around the corner with a flashlight. What he thought I was doing I can’t attest. He said something to me like: “You can come around and use it now, it’s OK.” I didn’t dare ask him what he meant. Instead of donned my trunks and set off down the hill.

I slunk past my fellow travelers to the van and grabbed alternate clothing to wear to bed, then I washed my hands again in the warm soapy water we had outside the tent. My tourmates suspected nothing as far as I could tell. I sprawled out on my cushion and tried to sleep.

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A corner of the medina in Essaouira.
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You’d think it would be cool walking here, overlooking the Atlantic, but it was fiercely hot, at least 39C until we reached the tents right by the water.

Monday, July 20, Tafrout, Morocco

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The inside of a 12th century mosque that we visited today.

We did little but travel today, descending from the Atlas Mountains down to the vast coastal plain that abuts the Atlantic Ocean. I set a personal record today, however. The 45 degrees Celsius temperature in Tourndant is the hottest place I’ve ever been. That’s 113 F.

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The view looking down into the river valley that we followed as we descended out of the mountains.