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A Rainbow of Opinions Heard at Denver Pridefest 2015

 

The 2015 Pridefest Parade brought 1000s of people into the streets of central Denver on Sunday, June 21, for Denver’s 40th annual gay pride weekend. According to GLBTColorado.org, 370,000 people attended the two-day event. Along with their folding chairs, rainbow-colored attire, water bottles and sunblock, many at the parade also brought their voices to speak about their opinions and perspectives on a spectrum of issues facing the LGBT community.

Crowds gathered as a menagerie of floats, fancy cars, vendors and volunteers slowly passed by on their Colfax route from Cheesman Park to Civic Center Park. Standing in the speckled shade of a tree, in the shadow of the State Capitol Building, Denver native Slum Pickens cheered for every attraction that passed with almost the exact same cheer of gratitude and support, but it never got old.  It never lost its charm.

“You’re beautiful. Thank you for what you do,” Pickens yelled.

Denver native Slum Pickens enjoys the Pridefest Parade on June 21, 2015. “This attracts the most gorgeous group of people in Denver,” Pickens said.

Next to Pickens stood Kay Troxell and Allison Mellor, two sisters who feverishly shook their rainbow flags in one hand while waving at people, strangers, in the parade with the other.

“Pride is the best day of the year. It’s like Christmas for gays.” Troxell said.

The energy on the street was electric, coursing through the humid June air. It seemed like everyone was hooting and whistling, screaming and laughing with unabashed enjoyment. Babies somehow dozed off in their strollers amidst the ruckus. Mellor said the huge cross section of people present at the parade speaks to one of Pride’s defining qualities.

“You can be gay, or straight, and you’re part of the party, part of the fun.”

Allison Mellor (left) and her sister Kay Troxell celebrate at the Pridefest Parade in Denver on June, 21, 2015. “It’s the best parade in Denver, hands down,” Troxell said.

There was nothing but fun, smiles and colors in all directions, but as the crowds thinned out and the last float drifted through Capitol Hill, a new voice was heard in the distance, carried in bristling, stacatto bursts. It felt harsh and seemed odd.

The commotion was coming from the nearby corner of Colfax and Grant where a man, going only by the name of Matthew, stood on a small step ladder, yelling anti-gay statements into a megaphone. “Have you people completely lost your minds? This is a sickness,” Matthew said, while holding a banner that read, “Jesus saves from Hell.”

A police officer, present in the situation but not imposing, looked unaffected as he stood off to the right of the Matthew, while a young lady, V Martin, posted up right in front of him with a sign of her own. Martin’s arm were spread wide like she was trying to hug the whole crowd that had now gathered, but she was fanning out a tapestry that read, “Born This Way” in rainbow-striped letters. Martin said she couldn’t let Matthew’s message be the only one heard.

“I just wanted to stand here with my ‘Born This Way’ sign. I’ve been standing here all day next to him, sending my message out too. I’ve been in tons of pictures. No one can really shut him up,” Martin continued, “Everyone is happy. This is the only guy that’s not happy here .”

V Martin holds a banner in front of an anti-gay evangelist, going only by the name of Matthew, along the parade route at Denver Pridefest on June 21, 2015.

Simeon Martinez, a gay man in attendance, feels that paying no mind to Matthew, and others who scorn the gay community, is the best way to deal with them.

“It just aids his cause. If everyone just ignores it then it’s not giving any power to him. He has a voice but if we don’t give him any power, then it’s fine. Everyone is allowed to express themselves. His view is a little skewed.” Martinez said.

Max Ruda, a friend Martinez, agrees.

“We have the power by ignoring him. If you’re voiceless, you’re powerless, and if we don’t hear his voice, he has nothing,” Ruda said.

(L – R): Simeon Martinez, Keith Jones, Max Ruda and Charlie Ruda sit near the Capitol Building in Denver following the Pridefest Parade on Sunday, June 21, 2015. Max and Charlie were married on November 9, 2014.

Ignoring a man yelling into a megaphone isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it’s possible. While several people stopped to yell and laugh at Matthew, most people did in fact carry on past him, often shaking their head in disdain and then flashing an encouraging smile and wink to Martin as she held her ground.

Matthew folded up his little step-ladder, rolled up his banner, stuffed it under his arm and shuffled off the corner. A chorus of insults and sarcastic comments accompanied his exit.

This was the third Denver gay pride event which Matthew has attended. He does not claim to be a preacher, and did not say which church he attends. Matthew said that homosexuals and their supporters are “evangelists for the Devil because they are out spreading their false message,” and are destined for Hell if they don’t repent.

“I’m just a straight up Christian, [who] just believes the Bible. Jesus was out exposing people’s sins, so that’s what I’m doing, is exposing their sins. That’s why they hate me. My motive is that they might be saved,” he continued, “They need a shock treatment, and that’s what I administer, is a shock treatment so they can wake up out of their sleep and love for sin. Most people don’t cooperate.”

Matthew said the same damnation also awaits the members of those churches who support homosexuals.

“They’re all headed for hell. Every single one of them. So, the whole community, God has no place for them in his kingdom. None, and there will be no exceptions,” he said.

Peter Eaton was the Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver from 2002 to 2015 and is currently the Bishop of Southeast Florida. The Episcopalian church openly accepts homosexuals into its congregation, and well as their clergy. Eaton said that treating everyone with respect and decency is a true Christian trait.

“Over the last several decades the church has tried to face, seriously, a range of issues to do with the human condition that we think are important. We’ve welcomed gay people into the life of the church,” he continued, “We say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore, anything that has to do with human dignity is a religious or spiritual issue that we think is important for us to pay attention to.”

Eaton’s comments reflect the Episcopal Church’s policy in acceptance of homosexuality within its denomination, in contrast to Matthew’s inflammetory comments, which Ruda pointed out.

Peter Eaton was the Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver from 2002 to 2015 and is currently the Bishop of Southeast Florida. The Episcopalian church openly accepts homosexuals into its congregation and clergy.

“[Matthew is] the ‘Jesus loves you’ guy, but that ‘Jesus is going to send you to hell’ guy. It’s a mixed message and it’s terrible.” Ruda continued, saying that the real impact felt at Pridefest came from the many people who came out to support the LGBT community, not Matthew, “The gay pride event is going to make a big difference. The 1000s of people who are here to support a larger cause of love are going to make a big difference. He’s not.”

Martinez reiterated this point.

“If you stop and spew hate back, then that’s just only feeding his cause and it’s giving him power and it’s not what gay pride is about in any way.”

Standing defiantly in front of Matthew as long as he was was present, Martin said her actions were a statement for equality in defense of the homosexual community.

“[I am] just showing that we have just as much right in the world as he does.”

At the beginning of the parade, before Matthew began his rant or Martin decided to take a stand, Pickens relayed a sentiment that seemed to ring loudest at the end of a day where many voices were heard.

“You can’t fight hate with hate. You have to have a love fest like this. You have to love all over everything.”

 

 

Piers Watson: Carrying the Torch of Luted Crucible Metal Casting

 

 

There was a bonfire in the parking lot of the New Mexico School for the Arts. A beat up old truck and a huddled group of people stood near the flame. Piers Watson, a lanky, bearded man in dusty cowboy boots and a dingy yellowish-brown canvas jacket, was the master of ceremonies as he prodded a shallow pit of glowing coals with a set of long, steel clamps. Watson was conducting a student workshop on the centuries old technique of luted crucible metal casting – a process he has been avidly studying and advocating for neary a decade. He travels the globe teaching the process, and today he is in Santa Fe.

Watson, 47, began casting bronze in 2006 with small clay crucibles and homemade charcoal. He spent the next couple years developing his technique, but with mixed results. The London native said he embraced the passion he was quickly developing for metal casting.

“Following your intuition is very important, if you can feel that something is the right thing to do, then that is already half the battle, the next bit is to act on it,” Watson said.

And act on it he did by traveling to Bastar, in the state of Chhattisgarh, in central India, in 2008. Watson lived with a family of hereditary tribal metal casters for a month to study the luted crucible technique under their guidance. This proved to be a profoundly inspirational trip for Watson, but his immersion into this new culture overshadowed his learning, which led to a return trip in 2012.

“ I learned so much about the family, their culture, their way of life and a whole lot about my own limitations. I tried to get the technique to work for the next four years but had pretty much 100 percent failure rate. On the second visit I paid more attention to the process.”

The origins of the luted crucible metal casting can be traced back several centuries to pre-industrial India, as well as western Africa, where the technique is still locally practiced in both. Living and studying in the birthplace of his beloved artform gave Watson deep insight into the craft’s history.

He said the three defining aspects of luted crucible metal casting is that it is inexpensive, safe and flexible. The raw materials of beeswax, sand, clay and scrap metal are relatively cheap and, according to Watson, are safe and easy to work with, allowing for the production of pieces to take place nearly anywhere.

“The kitchen table or around a campfire by the lake are perfectly acceptable ‘studios’ in which to work,” Watson said.

The ancient met the cutting edge when Watson created a wax mold of a nut and bolt using a 3D printer and then cast it in bronze using the luted crucible process. The contrast in technology and the breadth of evolution between these two products was aptly displayed in a before and after comparison; the wax 3D mold was fluroescent pink with smooth, clean lines, while the final metal cast product was a soot-covered black with rugged, dulled edges, yet fully functional.

Since 2013, Watson has devoted much of his career to leading workshops that showcase the history and technicalities of this craft. He encourages people to understand that this ancient process is also taking place in other parts of the world and focusing on this shared human experience of luted crucible metal casting is central to his mission, especially in a tech-driven modern era.

“Right now all I want to do is teach the process,” he continued, “I think it’s important to re-establish a sense of connection to people, not just as it is dictated by social media, but in a deeper way. I hope to open them up to the idea of how to reconnect with nature as a source of materials with which to do extraordinary things and how to help it rather than just taking from it.”

Watson says that with heightened global awareness of environmental and human rights issues, luted crucible metal casting is one way for people to move away from the “Industrial Answer.”

“Metal casting is one of the technologies that moved people out of the stone age but it has become a specialized industry where only specialists are allowed to know how it works. I think putting the knowledge back into the hands of the non-specialists, regular people, is extremely important. Democratizing metal casting!”

Watson lives in France, but his passion for this craft has him perpetually traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe for exhibition openings and workshops. 2015 is another busy year for him, with events booked in London, New Mexico, Kansas City and Brooklyn. Watson is also publishing his first book later this year, “The Luted Crucible, A Pre-Industrial Metal Casting Process,” which will be available on his website, www.pierswatson.com.

Watson’s sincere passion for luted crucible metal casting is evident is his work ethic, his enthrallment for the art form, the way he speaks of the process with sincere, poetic conviction. Watson spoke of the lessons he took away from those trips to India, but his words also seemed to apply to the people he meets during his travels and the one-of-a-kind figures each person creates in Watson’s fire pit.

“It’s so important to try and see what’s there in front of you, not judge them as good or bad and simply respect them for who and what they are in the moment.”

Watson has happily dedicated his life to his art, but he couldn’t have it any other way. Watson spreads the luted crucible message wherever he goes, not only for himself but for others. He is a missionary of metal casting who strives less to elevate the luted crucible process itself, but rather bring people together through the craft and its process. He may be showing people how to cast metal figures in a fire, but his greatest work is forming personal relationships amongst his fellow man.

Omerica Organic: Finding success in going green and against the grain

 

Omerica Organic has defied traditional businesses practices more than once, and by going green, and blazing new trails in their industry, their intrepidness has paid off.

What began as a one-man operation in a garage in Palisade, Colorado in 2004, has grown into a 6,000 sq. ft. warehouse in North Denver, at 3360 Walnut St., that is well-equipped with an array of high-tech machinery and a staff of over a dozen. Omerica Organic has dealers in 20 states across the country, international representation in 11 countries and a bustling online retail shop at www.omericaorganic.com.

Omerica Organic’s founder Ryan Lorenz says that, although commercial success is important, following eco-conscious practices, maintaining the human element within his operation and fostering progression is what lies at the heart of his company.

“[Our] direction is quality, efficiency and our staff. We have continual goals, and strive to always become better. Our process is one that a hand plays a major role in the product’s creation. I take pride in that!”

The Omerica Organic warehouse, located in the RiNo District of North Denver, has an unassuming brick facade but inside is a sleek reception area where handcrafted display cases are warmly lit and the faint buzz of machinery is heard coming from the nearby production floor.

Omerica Organic has genuinely embraced and integrated green technology and techniques into its daily operation through operating policies such as recycling wood scraps, using iPads instead of paper for work orders, replacing paper towels with cloth washrags, replanting trees in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy to offset their impact, working with certifiably ethical suppliers in the USA and powering the entire warehouse on purchased wind energy.

“It is very important to tread lightly. Being conscious has allowed us to implement a foundation that is low impact, and sharing this attribute as part of our image, if anything, acts as a reminder to others to try to be as eco-conscious as possible,” said Lorenz.

While Lorenz was happy to promote these parts of the operation, there are other aspects of the business that are closely guarded. The body jewelery industry is very competitive and protecting unique aspects of their brand is crucial said Erin Sim, the Design Lead and Social Media Manager for Omerica Organic.  

“There are people right behind us that have the same technology and are really honing in on how we do things, and so we’ve really tried to keep ahead of the curve.”  

Sim was willing to speak about a few aspects of their manufacturing, including utilizing certain machinery in ways not originally intended.

“We are using high-tech machinery, machines that are used for making car parts. We’ve sort of figured out how to use them with wood, really with the priority of consistency in mind.”   

One of the trademarks of Omerica Organic’s production is their use of laser etching technology, which results in impossibly small details on products that are about the size of a nickel. It’s a defining part of Omerica Organic’s style and an approach that has been pursued by competitors in the past.

“We were the first to use a laser in body jewelry production. We have seen other companies come and go that have also used lasers and have emulated our style, but we really just hit the ground running and haven’t stopped,” said Sim.

Considering there are hundreds of items and designs to choose from, the actual inventory on hand at Omerica Organic is quite small. This is because every product is made per order. Sim says that this helps reduce wasted wood and reaffirms their commitment to product quality and the customer’s needs.

“Typically when you place your order, we grab a block of wood, we turn it, and it goes through the process from there. People are individuals, and getting something that is custom made for you, and to fit your specifications, is really the best option.”

Lorenz says that this ethos of emphasizing the importance of each individual piece was his original muse.   

“What first inspired me was creating something of quality. I don’t believe in a throwaway society. I wanted to make something that when you held it, you knew something was special about that piece.”  

The staff members that transforms these rough blocks of wood into smooth, artfully crafted pieces of body jewelry love their job. Tyson Rasmussen, who is a product finisher, says he enjoys the familial bond he has with his small group of co-workers.

“It feels less like work and it feels a lot like hanging out with your friends all day and doing cool stuff in the meantime.”

Zach Yuskanich, who is also a product finisher, says this type of work is an ideal suit for him.

“I can’t work at a desk. I have too much A.D.D. I think. I like to work with my hands.”

Lorenz said the fun work atmosphere and closeness found within his “OO Crew” developed mostly on its own.

“We have just evolved in a way that is natural and comfortable. The environment was created with one question in mind: ‘What type of work environment would I want to work in?’”

Justin Sim, Omerica Organic’s General Manager, long-time friend of Lorenz and husband to Erin Sim, said that Omerica Organic’s eco-conscious outlook actually stems from its employees lifestyles.

“It’s something that we all practice in our own lives as well as then carrying that over, and incorporating that into the business aspect of everything.”

A mixed-media approach of incorporating metal casting into their wooden products is the newest area of expansion for Omerica Organic. It’s an endeavor that is in keeping with their continual self-challenging manner.

“We’re sort of self taught. We bought the machinery, taught ourselves how to use it, stumbled through the process, but we have really figured out quite a bit,” Sim continued, “I would say that’s the future. Continuing to challenge ourselves is the plan.”

Much like the company itself, Omerica Organic’s green approach to its daily operations is a fluid process that constantly adapts and is always looking for new directions to explore.

“I think it’s important, not only to start thinking that way, but just start small and work toward that. It’s an ever-evolving type of system we have here,” said Justin Sim.

There is a keen structure at Omerica Organic that is based on the Lorenz’s decisions, which comes from closely analyzed data, deliberate choices and strategic implementation of plans. But there is also a tangible feel of community within the warehouse and a noticeable sparkle of enthusiasm in the eye of everyone that works there. They are proud of their job and the product they represent.

Lorenz has put eco-friendly practices and innovation at the center of Omerica Organic’s operating model, and it’s starting to look like the company has many following its lead.

“I believe we can write our own story and there are infinite ways of achieving one’s goals. The continuing challenge of business keeps me inspired. As long as you don’t get lazy and want to always evolve forward, you have plenty to keep busy with.”

Peaches Malmaud: The Garlic Queen of New Mexico

Peaches and garlic. It’s a serendipitous combination that could only be found at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

Peaches Malmaud, 66, moved to the Southwest in 1970 to teach ceramics at the University of New Mexico, but shortly after her arrival she had a change of heart. Her passion had shifted from molding clay to cultivating crops. Malmaud feels that life down on the farm is her true calling, an artform in its own right and a lifestyle that keeps her connected to the earth.

“As long as my hands are in dirt, I feel good.”

Peaches Malmaud laughs while she sells her handmade garlic oil at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

Malmaud has been farming in Placitas, New Mexico for 15 years. After a failed crop of amaryllis early on in her agricultural career, Malmaud felt that choosing a more resilient bulb would be a good idea. She went with garlic, a choice that has worked out quite well for her. Her Valley Garlic Oil business employs three full-time workers during the June harvest season, and droves of Malmaud’s labor-ready friends show up biannually to help plant and pluck the garlic.

Malmaud touted garlic’s multitude of medicinal properties, along with its seemingly endless culinary uses. Her face beamed with a wide smile as she explained the possibilities of just one garlic clove.

“It’s a great crop, and it’s a clone, so the bigger the garlic you plant, the bigger your garlic can potentially be.”

The garlic oil that Malmaud produces is a highly concentrated elixir, derived from dozens of cloves per ounce. The oil production process, from field to bottle, takes about a month. It follows a series of steps beginning when the garlic is harvested in mid-summer. The cloves are then separated from the bulb, mashed, mixed with extra virgin olive oil on a 1:1 ratio, based on weight, and thoroughly filtered several times before bottling. In an effort to minimize waste, Malmaud feeds her chickens the exhausted garlic cloves, a byproduct from the oil production and a natural antibiotic source.

“It’s a kind of nice process of utilization,” Malamud said.

Local vendor Anna Booth, of Gemini Farms, tends to the produce at her stand at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

The Santa Fe Farmer’s Market was bustling on a recent Saturday morning. Vendors lined both sides of the smooth, concrete walkway in the Railyard District – a renovated industrial area that is now home to an array of Santa Fean cultural and artistic events. Dense crowds of shoppers huddled around stands, peeking over each other’s shoulders for a glimpse of the colorful and eclectic foods for sale. Mounds of dusty purple-skinned potatoes were stacked next to plump bushels of white radishes. The spicy, charred scent of roasted chilis swirled with the notes of a chirping saxaphone being played by a teenaged street performer.

Malmaud loves the upbeat atmosphere of the farmer’s market. She has an obvious affinity for the people here. But she never found herself being drawn to Santa Fe itself. She said she’s just not a city person.

“Santa Fe is really good for people who want  to start up a business. I like living in the country, so I can come into the city to sell, which is what attracted me to the state.”

Anna Booth of Gemini Farms makes a sale at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market. Booth said Santa Fe’s natural beauty drew her to the town. “It’s a real connection to the land, the hills, the mountains, the sky and especially the light. It still blows me away.” 

Standing at the market, Malmaud beckoned to passersby with raised eyebrows and a magnetic smile. She made a new friend with every sale, genuinely thanking them for their purchase while rattling off the oil’s many uses and powers. The deep wrinkles on her cheeks came to life, bending into happy lines across her face as she let out a deep, raspy laugh. Her passion for this savory-scented bulb is nearly contagious. She likened its pungent aroma to that of ambrosia.

“It’s a really nice product to sell because you never know how people are going to react. People either love garlic or hate it. There’s no in between. I think I always loved garlic, but I love it even more now.”

It could be her lovable demeanor, relaxed yet calculated sales pitch or the undeniable quality of her product, but if you stop at Peach’s stand you will most likely be walking away with your very own bottle of her garlic oil. However, whether you stop for the oil, to chat with Peaches herself, or both, you’ll surely be taking away something that will treat you well for many days to come.

A World Unto Itself: San Francisco’s Chinatown

I wandered through the streets of San Francisco with a swelling sense of anticipation and nervous energy. I was headed to Chinatown with hardly enough knowledge of the place to fill a fortune cookie, but I knew for certain that it was crucial I go there and that it would be a riotous attack on my senses. Tempting smells wafted from cramped, sidewalk restaurants and drifted up past bulbous red paper lanterns festooned across Grant Avenue. Buildings with ornate oriental facades corralled the dense flow of humanity through the streets. I forgot I was still in the 21st Century America after a few minutes, but I’ll never forget being in this part of the City by the Bay.

More photographs and full article coming soon.

Huckleberry Roasters: Brewing Up Community Through Coffee

Huckleberry Roasters was founded in Denver, Colo. in 2011 by two friends simply known as Koan and Mark. They were acquaintances when they first met in 2006 at, you guessed it, a coffee shop. One was the barista, while the other was on the other side of the counter as a customer.

The two bonded over their shared passions, which included music and all things coffee, and in 2011 they began roasting their own coffee beans. They believe that coffee shops create a special environment that inspires meaningful conversations and true communal interactions. It is this ethos that percolates through their work and is the desired effect of their creation.

“We believe that a coffee shop can play a dynamic role in our communities—that enjoying a cup of coffee leads to creative inspiration and impactful experiences,” their website said.

Huckleberry has two cafes in Denver, 2500 Larimer St. and 4301 Pecos St., the second is also home to their roasting room.

Yours Truly: My Time Studying Abroad

I walked into my advisor’s office on campus one day, looking to do more in the Journalism department or maybe set up an internship in town. He sent me half way around the world instead. It was more than a trip. It was more than a semester abroad. It was more than I could have imagined. It was an adventure, in the truest, sweetest sense of the word.

“I know your type. Come on, follow me,” he said as he came around from behind his desk. He took me to the Office of International Studies where my journey began. It ended in Tuscania; a small town in central Italy where I would call home for four months.

This old town had a medieval center, surrounded by massive, rough hewn stone walls that cradled a maze of cobblestone roads. Breathtaking scenes of bustling piazzas, gorgeous landscapes and daily life in small-town Italy played out everyday right before my eyes. I was humbled and electrified to be a part of it. But I wasn’t just passing through. I actually lived here! I had a home on Via del Giordino, I knew the baristas at my favorite bar by name (and they knew mine), I had local friends that I would call and I could actually recommend restaurants and bakeries that I felt were noteworthy. I was part of this community. That was the best part of it all.

I was shown splendors all over Italy, from the small towns in the Lazio and Tuscany regions to the grandeur that is Rome. And just the thought of being back in Florence, if only for one espresso, makes my heart throb. This type of travel, this immersion into a life that you worked so hard to get to, was more than fulfilling, it was enlightening. We were living in rich days that were full of life.

Weaving through the masses as a faceless, nameless stranger that spoke a different language and came from a far off land was a common situation I found myself in. It was in this setting that I strolled through Paris on a fall Saturday afternoon, a soft pink hue gently draped over the city like a chiffon shawl. And in Marrakech I wandered through the medina’s corridors as an unknown passerby, finding myself in an exotic world I never thought possible.

But I never felt alone in these or any other times. I had school staff members, local guides, fellow students and natives that befriended me. They were wonderful travel companions and became friends of the highest order. That’s not to say that my thoughts didn’t turn to home from time to time, but things were just moving too fast and packed with too much fun to get caught up with wonderings of what was going on in my old neighborhood. But I always made sure to Skype with my Mom every week. I may be a fly-by-night, thrill seeking travel junkie, but I’m still a good son.

Traveling is its own reward. The souvenirs I bought could fit in a Moroccan tea bag, but what I did bring back was a lifetime’s worth of memories, an endless well of inspiration and most of all – a deeper sense of appreciation. For life. For the world. For the simple things and for the barely comprehendible ones too. The days were filled with endless promise, to be shared with new friends made along the way.

Through all the wild times of hopping trains and planes and busses and gypsy cabs to uncharted regions and unknown places, I learned that beauty can really be found anywhere, anytime. It is how you embrace life, and those you are with, that can turn “any day” into “that one day.” I went searching for life. I went searching for myself. And I found them both; one in the other.

LIKE NOTHING BEFORE: MY TIME IN MARRAKECH (PART 3 OF 3)

Part 3: Do I Know You

Morocco attracts a rare breed of traveler, no doubt. A wild weekend in North Africa is our idea of a fun getaway. Part romantic, part explorer and as some uninformed cynics would venture to say, part lunatic. Those of us here find pleasure in adventures off the beaten path. And if Morocco was off the radar of your typical excursion, then the backstreets of Marrakech was like trekking on the dark side of the moon. A mysterious place rarely ventured to or, better yet, seeked out. This is where I wanted to go.

We began our walking tour of the old part of town with lunch near the city center. I surveyed Jemaa el-Fnaa square from a second floor restaurant window. Its presence in the midday sun faintly resembled the spooky nocturnal form I crept through the night before. The small islands of illuminated food stands and heaving masses of people milling around have all vanished in the daylight. There are countless routes jutting off from the square. Each passage whisking you away into another world, down precarious roads and under tattered canopies. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you will get lost. That’s one thing I know for sure.

Luckily Marcie knows this town, the real town, as well as anyone. She has friends in all corners of the city, from the owners of swanky, white tablecloth dinner clubs to the little known shopkeepers. Originally from South Africa, she is naturally charismatic, with an intellect and sense of humor that are both razor sharp. I enjoyed several long conversations with her in the riad at the end of each day.

I followed Marcie, along with Brigid, down a cobblestone alley, but something seemed different. The brightly colored tapestries and leather handbags weren’t cluttering the flanks of the streets. There weren’t gaudy displays of silver jewelry and brass trinkets twinkling in the sun. This was not the dressed up, touristy part of town; not that there ever was one. We were in Souk El Haddadine, generally referred to as the Blacksmith Market. Taking its name from the dominant trade in this burrough, this district is where they make all that stuff being sold back up in the square to wide-eyed visitors. Shops manufacturing leather goods, iron lanterns and handsewn garments were all crammed in next to one another. The tink-tink-tink of a hammer striking an anvil pierces my eardrum as I pass by a cramped, dingy metal shop. The metallic blasts ring out, laying down a rhythm for the claustrophobic chaos in the street. It was a hectic, kind of sketchy and ominously beautiful place. This definitely wasn’t a narrated bus tour with an annoyingly gitty local guide cracking cheesy one-liners on the intercom. This was an unfiltered insight into the everyday life of some very hard working people and I was again humbled and grateful for the privilege to see it.

We carried on through the tangled web of streets, each turn revealing a theater of interaction that I could watch all day. Our next stop was the University of al-Karaouine, which was established in 859 as a cultural center for the Muslim faithful. Still functional today, it is the oldest existing educational institute in the world. Walking the grounds here, as countless souls have for over 100 decades, all I could really do was shake my head in awe. This country, this society, is drenched in history.

Strolling through the streets for the afternoon, we passed by small piazzas where a confluence of back alleys met and men idly awaited for a signal to load up their trollies for a quick errand. We ended our day at the hammam with the timeless, self-indulgent treat of a full body massage. The scent of argan oil drifted through the tranquil, dark inner chambers of this retreat. I could faintly hear the evening calls to prayers radiate from the minarets as I lay in a semi-conscious state of relaxation on the massage table. This was the calm, the stillness I was in need of.

I emerged from the pitch-black room and sat with Brigid on a cozy velvet couch. She is another one from the wanderlust tribe; an American expat living abroad, always on the lookout for the next adventure. She is a true hearted, outgoing person with a radiant smile. And she rocks a killer pair of cowboy boots; something I’ve always been a sucker for! I watched her, in my blissed-out, post-massage buzz, as she fanned her hands, drying the red nailpolish from her manicure. It was a moment I won’t soon forget. I don’t think I can leave here. Call my family, sell the car, I’m out.

It’s fitting for this town, which has pretty much shattered my sophomoric sense of any worldly understanding I have acquired up to this point, to poignantly offer me such serene moments within its incomparably frenzied atmosphere. Marrakech has brilliantly blown my mind, exceeded all my expectations, humbled me beyond words and unabashedly shot down all the paranoid remarks from the skeptics who raised an eyebrow at me when I said I was coming here.

Being in Marrakech was a soul stirring experience. I am still mesmerized by the entire place. I have traveled abroad several times but everything seems new to me after this one. I was given a new perspective on things, a broader vision of life. Living here amongst the bizarre, and previously abnormal, had enlightened me. It made the world seem smaller, more accessible, more real. Far off places like Marrakech can be touched; seen with your own eyes and felt deep inside if you just go there. The more I travel and see, the more I realize how little I know of the world, and how much I desire to learn.

Brenden and I sat at a sidewalk cafe just outside the same archway where I was deposited when I first arrived in town. This journey had come full circle for me, and we took a moment to reflect on our time here before our paths diverged into the future. I told him my thoughts on traveling as a way to make the world more familiar. He replied with observations on the true uniqueness that can be found in every person. It was a simple time, two people just talking about life. That may be the essence of why we travel, why we put ourselves through the labors involved, why we go to the ends of the earth on vaguely defined missions. Maybe we just want to get to know people, the world and ourselves a little bit better. Without people, this trip would have been a fickle endeavour. I would have just wandering around an empty town in the desert. An indescribably gorgeous town in the desert.

Photos: LIKE NOTHING BEFORE: MY TIME IN MARRAKECH (PART 3 OF 3)