Living at the end of the Fjord

Watercolor of Isefjærlieren by Mark Benton

I had the great fortune of spending the month of September at the Isefjærlieren Naturist Center, situated cozily at the northern-most tip of Isefjærfjorden , a five kilometer fjord from the southern coast of Norway near Kristiansand.  That’s right; I did say “Naturist Center”.  Depending on your background and where you might come from, this term can easily be misconstrued, so let’s be clear from the start.  This is a nudist camp.  Despite what you may feel concerning the “naturist lifestyle”, the people themselves are quite wonderful, carrying with them a great exuberance of life and for others around them, as you can well imagine, clothes or no clothes.  The average naturist will tell you that without clothes, the status between genders is quite level.  Your pride has been stripped.  No one stands higher than the other on any eschelon.


My personal feeling on the matter remain ambivalent.  Whatever anyone else does is their business, and more power to them.  Freedom of expression, I say.  As for shedding my own clothes in public, I admit to more than a few misgivings, but coming to Isefjær in September, I have certainly gotten off the proverbial hook.  We were lucky to enjoy some beautiful, sunny days at the beginning of the month where one could spot the rare late-season naturist in his or her natural habitat, but for the most part, the nights cooled off dramatically, the Autumn rains came, and the inhabitants of  Isefjærlieren put their clothes back on.


Many of the photos featured here are taken in the warm glow of the Norwegian sun, simply because of my proclivity to be outside in less inclement weather, but make no mistake, Norway has its share of rain clouds.  It will rain off and on for four days, and then shine bright for one.  Most clouds in Scandinavia, that I’ve seen, seem to carry rain with it, even on a partly cloudy day.  I’ve never been to a place where the sun will come out, and it it will start to rain, simply because the cloud that was obscuring the afternoon sun moved out of the way, and directly over you.  Where I’m from, I might see two rainbows in a year.  Here, I spotted three or four in one month.


The entire camp rests on the side of a steep hill, much like most of the fjord shoreline, making the waters very deep.  In essence, the three rentable room buildings, sauna/shower building, and 10 cabins, including a small caravan camp at the top, makes Isefærlieren somewhat of a small cliff-dwelling village.  The place is overseen by a naturist board that makes all of the final decisions, but the center is run full-time by its loyal, hardworking caretakers, Thor and Alison with their two fantastic dogs Roger and Piglet.  They are two of the most interesting, intelligent individuals I’ve ever met.  Both are English, but, of course, the mighty Thor is Norwegian on his father’s side.  Their backgrounds are wonderfully diverse, lending to innumerable amounts of obscure and useful information.  I could tell you more about this and their unique, global perspectives which such wide experience affords, but they would tell it far better than I.  Needless to say, there has been no shortage of worthwhile and entertaining conversation here.

Thor and Alison are wonderful, welcoming hosts and are always happy to point you in the direction of the area’s points of interest, whether it be the Kristiansand Dyrepark, a popular zoo and amusement/water park only three kilometers away as the crow flies, or the municipality of Lillesand, a twelve kilometer drive from Isefjær where you can experience a traditional white-washed town of Sørlandet Norge (Southern Norway).


Personally, I was all too happy to explore the fjord itself, a few feet away.  I swam; I fished; I kayaked.  For a water nut like myself, this is nothing but a giant playground that stretches from the North Sea (which I did manage to kayak to), deep into the wilds of rural Norway.  The many islands that dot the waterways are tiny, untouched worlds of gentle beauty, and the water is clean and clear.  When I wasn’t on the fjord, I was hiking the surrounding hills, whose rocky landscape rivals any up and down drama of a theme park ride.  I shall deeply miss my Isefjærfjorden.


The California Road Trip

This was an unexpected adventure at the end of my eight-month journey.  You see, I was all set to spend the month of April in Melbourne, Australia, painting another house for my next host (I have to remember to take that skill off my workaway profile), yet fate felt differently.  I must have been extremely tired when I got off the plane at the Melbourne Airport, for the customs agent managed to weazel a lot more information out of me than I wanted to give.  For instance… where was I staying and what was I doing in Melbourne?  As someone with a tourist Visa coming to Australia for a work exchange, the appropriate lie is to say that you are simply visiting a friend.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t have my host’s address, and somehow the phrase “house painting” escaped my lips, and after seven months of dealing with this type of red tape, I should have known better.  Essentially, they did not like the idea of any work being done without a work Visa, and I was eventually detained and brought to a detention center for a total of 30 hours.  I found myself surrounded by several other international detainees of various cultures and backgrounds in a compound with a well-stocked mess hall and plenty of diversions including a futbol field, volleyball court and billiard tables, not to mention unlimited channels to choose from on a shared, widescreen TV.  Despite all these potential distractions, my possessions were taken away and I couldn’t ignore the five meter tall, barbed-wire fence encircling the perimeter, but thirty hours is only thirty hours and I was eventually deported by the Australian government and shipped off to the nearest U.S port… Los Angeles.

So, here I found myself back in my home country a month early with the highly-anticipated plans of visiting my best friend from high school, Jud Roberts in Denver at the end of the month.  Painting another house in Australia was supposed to hold me over until then.  Visiting Jud a month early was not an option.  He had just started a new job, and things were more than a little hectic in his life at the moment.  I was faced with the decision of booking a flight home early and missing out on seeing my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in ten years… or seeing if I could explore California for the month of April… hmmm…

Jud and I

Twenty five years ago or so, I had spent a night in San Francisco on a long layover… hardly a substantial stay, and although compared to Australia, California initially did not sound like the last exotic adventure that I had hoped for, yet I will never regret my decision to stay.


I am a planner by nature and this trip proved no different, but it has also challenged that nature.  Everything, right up until Melbourne, had been planned out before I had even left Vermont back in August 2018… yet after Vietnam, nothing had gone according to that plan.  I did not go to China, which consequently changed the hosts I had in New Zealand… but after I left those beautiful islands with its wonderfully unexpected stay, I was thinking that I was finally getting back on track in Melbourne.  I admit that I had felt a few moments of absolute frustration in the Melbourne Airport, but I also surprised myself how I barely batted an eyelash and began researching possibilities in California.

Almost right away, a workaway host living in Mariposa, CA named Rex had replied to my plea for help.  Within the same day of stepping foot on native soil, I was introduced to Rex’s eccentric, VW junkyard scattered across a few acres of the beautiful Sierra Madres in the midst of a budding Spring.  Rex is the type of guy who has a big smile for everyone he meets, and claims that he can never say no to a workawayer who inquires about his very particular program.  There is not one ounce of judgement in his bones.  He only started re-vamping his life a few years ago from one with a regular day job and mortgage to a full-time gardener, work exchanger, and off-grid liver.  As a vegetarian, he mainly provides for himself by relieving the local, Mexican farmer’s markets of their “perdido”, shrink, or otherwise unsellable produce.  Rex usually walks away with a cart-load of fruit and veggie crates per week, more than enough to feed him, his workawayers, his chickens, and his compost.  Of course, he never referred to anything as “his”.  He always corrected me by saying “ours”.


I was very excited to find that my sleeping quarters would be one of the many abandoned, VW micro-buses on the property.  I picked a nice, white one near the communal fire pit.  The entire site was set on a large, flat outcropping of rock nestled above Rex’s huge garage.  The flat rock was a perfect studio space for the many art projects that my host heavily encouraged.



There were plenty of other daily chores to also keep me busy such as watering the garden, seeing to the chickens, and gathering firewood.  It was also a daily challenge of organizing, sorting, and coming up with new and inventive food preparations with what fate awarded us from the farmer’s market every Saturday.

Merced Farmer’s Market

Of course, Mariposa is less than an hour’s drive from the Half Dome Village of Yosemite National Park.  Rex was more than happy to give us his own personal tour.  I was pretty sure I would not be seeing anything like this in Australia, nor was I very familiar with any western U.S. national parks, but I could now knock this one off my list.

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Halfway through my stay, Daisy (another unique California name, especially for a 32 year old man), a friend and fellow workaway host of Rex’s, arrived with four of his own workawayers in his rennovated school bus with three solar panels mounted on the roof and running on veggie oil.  The ever-generous Rex had given Daisy permission to use all of his welding equipment to fabricate a large luggage carrier on the back of his bus, the latest addition.  This was done with the valued help of Ignacio, or “Nacho”, a welder from Chile.  Using his unique mode of transport, Daisy had the interesting idea of hosting workawayers on the road, but when he wasn’t traveling, he was hosting in San Francisco, not far from Haight St and Ashbury (of course).


Ignacio AKA “Nacho”

When the luggage carrier was finished, and I had thrown a fresh coat of black rustoleum on it, Daisy and his crew would be heading back to San Fran.  Since my flight to Denver to visit Jud was out of San Francisco, Daisy was more than happy to bring me along… so saying my fond farewells to Rex, I boarded the “Uncle Daisy mobile” and headed into the city.  I had four days until my flight, but my new, impromptu host was nice enough to put me up in his apartment and show me around the city.  Daisy’s operation was very similar to Rex’s, in that he visited many farmer’s markets, taking their throw-aways… in fact, he  had originally introduced Rex to this method of reducing food waste.  Daisy even used some of this produce in a nearby food kitchen project known as “Curry without Worry” run by a local Southeast Asian contingent.



Easter spent in San Francisco this year was certainly one of the most interesting I’ve ever experienced, and another advantage to being relatively this close to home was that I was well within business travel range to my brother-in-law, Paul, whom I managed to meet up with and visit San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.  In no time at all, I was on my way to Colorado, also visiting my best friend, Jud.

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I am finally home now, looking back at a whirlwind of amazing memories spanning the last eight months.  I am so grateful to each one of them for all the patience, growth, and joy they’ve afforded me.  Only now do I see that my host, Sunshine in Takaka, originally from west coast of the U.S. and the first of my deviations from my original plans, would eventually be pointing me in the direction of sunny California and its unexpected bliss.  I think that it is safe to say that my next expedition will lend itself more to the wonderful risk of spontaneity.  Sometimes, you just have to let the road choose your way.

The Kiwi Lifestyle: Barefoot and Fancy free

As I rolled into Takaka of the South Island’s Golden Bay, there was a steady stream of young hippies filtering through this small, progressive community.  It reminded me of when the “Grateful Dead” would come to town… VW buses, patchwork clothing, dreadlocks, and all.  This is never been my style, in fact, I don’t believe I have a style at all… but seeing these cute, little nomads always puts a smile on my face with their care-free, “wherever the road takes me” spirit.  It’s also always fun to witness the international version of this huge tribe.  The differences from nationality to nationality are subtle, but the like-mindedness reigns supreme, and this is what I most enjoy.


There was no “Grateful Dead” concert, just a holistic festival known as “Luminate”, meant to shed light on the many ways we can better the world and ourselves.  Sadly, it was ending as I was arriving, but I would soon find that its universal philosophy resided staunchly in the mind of my host, Sunshine Appleby.  Having already been made aware of her name through our prior correspondence, I assumed as much… but nothing could accurately prepare me for the level of commitment to these ideals, or the unbridled love, gratitude, and generosity that exuded from this vibrant seventy five year-old woman.


The first job she gave me was shoveling horse shit.  Afterall, most of her guests are “Woofers”, and her gardens and the community garden she is graciously affiliated with are works of art as far as the right way to garden.  The cornerstone of Sunshine’s teachings lie with compost, which was the perfect place for me to start.  The proper way to compost is an in depth layering of various ingredients which I will not divulge here.  I will leave it to the reader to go to the Takaka Community Gardens and see it first hand.  Aside from Sunshine… Lawerence, Murray, or Saul, whom do a great deal of organizing at the gardens, will be happy to grace you with their considerable knowledge.


The Takaka Community Gardens are unlike any community gardens I’ve been to.  On any given weekend, one can take part in classes ranging from alternative eco-building to Lawrence’s favorite:  “50 Ways on How to Unfuck the World”.  They not only have a fantastic farmstand to sell their impressively wide range of produce, but the gardens also house an apiary to sell honey.  Every other Friday, they will fire up their outside, brick ovens to serve the public their own personal, wood-fired flatbread.


After the weeks following the “Luminate Festival”, most of the nomadic hippies had moved on (not all, in fact many of the locals refer to their town as “Stuckaka” as many who visit Takaka become voluntarily stuck here), I realized that the town had not just tolerated all these liberal visitors… the town itself was the most liberal of all.  Aside from Sunshine, the Community Garden folks and all their friends, I havn’t come across a more friendly, laid back group of people than the kiwis, especially Takakan kiwis.  Their humor has split my sides on more than one occasion, and their liesurely attitude is contagious.  I must say, I really enjoyed the freedom of walking through a grocery store barefoot.  Its the little things.

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It wasn’t long before Sunshine learned of my skills with a paintbrush, and pulled me out of the gardens to turn me loose on the inside of my small cabin I was given to sleep in.  It is called the “writer’s studio” but alas, from me, very little writing was done there.  I asked what she wanted me to paint.  My answer was, “The sky’s the limit.”  In fact, I took my subject past the sky and into outer space, creating strange, floral wall borders and scroll work, populated by lauroidal, alien plant-life.  This was the kind of creative freedom that Sunshine nurtured.  She genuinely wanted everyone there to explore their inner, spiritual selves.

When I wasn’t learning about innovative composting methods or painting extraterrestrial strawberries, I was exploring Takaka and the surrounding area with the many friends I fell in love with at Sunshine’s house.  Visiting the many beaches or river swimming holes was a daily occurrence.  There was an endless amount of hiking to do, climbing the surrounding mountains, which the kiwis called hills, or spelunking at Rawhiti Cave.  Taking a drive up to the Mussel Inn for great music and a relaxing atmosphere was also a good weekend thing to do.


It was very difficult to leave my family in Takaka, but after a month, I shouldered my pack and hit the road south with my thumb out.  I had never been on this end of  the hitch-hiking scene before New Zealand, but here it is just another way to get around.  It’s very easy and everyone is so nice and accommodating.  After several hours, I was in Charleston on the West coast to meet my next host, Don.

My education continued with another extremely interesting host.  Don Levy, a native New Zealander and solar panel investor, has also been around the world, doing a variety of interesting things over the years, from volunteering his time in southeast Asia, dismantling old land mines, to running a multi-million dollar cattle ranch in Nevada.  He had no shortage of wild stories to tell.  There wasn’t a single plant on Don’s property that he couldn’t tell you the name of, from the eucalyptus to the mighty macrocarpa, and the manuka, of which his bees use to make his honey.  During my stay, his on-going project was designing a solar array for a primary school in Nepal, solar power being a particular subject that I liked to pick his brain with.


I was placed in charge of painting one of his tenant houses on his 150 acre farm.  Needless to say, there was plenty of room to explore and paths to walk without leaving the property, complete with citrus orchards, cows, ducks, and chickens… all in the company of Sydney (Syd), Don’s very lively, two-year-old border collie.  With his fourteen-panel, amorphous solar array, Don boasts a high level of off-the-grid living.  He is nothing if but a survivor, having beaten back lung cancer without the use of kemotherapy.  A large-scale power outage or other catastrophe would certainly not worry him much.


Charleston is without a doubt a one-horse town, the largest town up the coast to the north, being Westport… but its draw is not its community, like Takaka.  What brings you to Charleston is the raw beauty of the New Zealand’s west coast.  Most of this area consists of small farms squeezed between high elevations of cool rain forest and the raging sea.  The mountains bring hikers, climbers and spelunkers, mostly toward Paparoa National Park, but the west coast is known for its surfing.  The ocean is powerful here and not to be taken lightly.  Charleston is known for its dangerous riptide.  It is also not far from the famous “Pancake Rocks” of Punakaiki.

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My time of departure from New Zealand draws near.  Its rugged landscape and beautiful, resilient people will be sorely missed.  Even the horrible shootings in Christchurch this past month have done little to blemish the peaceful atmosphere of this wonderful, little country.  If anything, the kiwis have strongly renounced such hateful action, standing firm to their almost-utopian way of life.


Living on Ha Long Bay

Watercolor by Mark Benton

It’s been two months living right next to this beautiful World Heritage site, and now it’s almost over.  Where have the days gone?  I have been so busy with teaching that I have not had time to really explore Vietnam.  I am all right with that.  In my time here, I feel that I have truly abandoned the tourist mentality.  I have gotten to know Ha Long City very well, much more than I knew Casablanca.  Of course, in Casablanca, I didn’t have a moped (they call them motorbikes here, much more dignified).  I have explored the entire bay area thoroughly, teaching in, at least, a dozen different schools, kindergarten through junior high equivalent.  I have been warmly welcomed into a large Vietnamese family, celebrating birthdays and holidays.  It’s been everyday, Ha Long life, and I’ve loved it.

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I have been extremely lucky living with Quynh Nguyen and her 14 year old son, Hieu (now 15).  Every morning, I walked out onto their 15th floor balcony to take in the wide southern exposure of the giant, karst monuments and fishing boats that dot the bay.  Its very easy to spend hours staring out across the seemingly infinite limestone islands, jutting up out of the water, pondering on the eons of vertical geological developement.  Not once have I been able to spot the open South China Sea beyond these natural monoliths.

IMG_20181204_183712  The bay is why I initially came here, but I never knew what I was getting into with Quynh and her family.  They took me in as their own, sharing everything selflessly, to the point of making me question my strict sense of western, material ownership. Americans are selfish compared to most people in this country.  Her extended family visited often and we visited them, all of Quynh’s five sisters and one brother, and their families, including “Ba” (Grandma), her eighty seven year old mother.  Out of all of them, only Quynh and Hieu speak English, but this did not seem to diminish the connections I had with many of them, and it was also a great opportunity to work on my very weak Vietnamese.

I think the first day I was fully indoctrinated into Vietnamese society was when I learned, “the hard way”, about how traffic here works.  I mentioned that Quynh shares everything she has selflessly.  Well, her motorbike was handed over to me for the duration of my stay.  Now, it must be known that this was my first moped experience, and I did have a shaky start, but with the help of Hieu, I got over my first few bumps to the point where I felt confident enough to head out on my own.  That’s when it happened.  Things don’t work the same way on the road here the way they do in the western world.  I experienced a little of this in Morocco as well, but you do not necesarily have the right-of-way over on-coming traffic turning left across your lane.  You have to simply slow down or get the hell out of the way, especially if your on a motorbike… so much for higher dignity.   A couple of skinned knees and elbows later and I learned my lesson well.


Another thing that took some getting used to was the fact that the Vietnamese have no concept of personal space.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t feel this is a bad thing.  It just took me by surprise in the beginning.  If you are teaching a bunch of young students, they will touch you, and hug you, and play with your hair.  If you have a beard, like I do, random women in the street will want to come up to you and touch it.  You have to remember, there’s not a lot of facial hair around these parts.


Being an English teacher has been the best best way to immerse myself into the culture.  As I said in Casablanca… “Who is teaching who?”, but the Vietnamese classroom setting is a little bit more different from what I remember back home.  Before you know it, things can get way out of hand.  The Vietnamese child can be just as distracted and unruly as the rest of the youth around the world, and that has happened quite a bit, but that is not what I’m talking about.  I have never seen children so enthusiastic and lively about a game or activity.  They can be absolutely ravenous about learning, and if you’re not careful, or fast enough, they will slowly begin to take over.  It is not so much, “Who is teaching who?”, but more like, “Who is running the class?”


Everything I’ve talked about are good examples of how fearless I think the Vietnamese people are.  Inhibitions, self-consciousness, and falsehoods are not huge issues here.  As a foreigner and the extreme minority, I have had to let these things go.  There is no blending in here.  You never know when someone on the street will randomly call you out, practicing their rudimentary English, and yelling, “Hallo!”, or honking their horn in passing.  This may seem very intrusive from the western perspective, but trust me, they mean well.


The people here are truly great, but where they live is what makes them who they are.  I did manage to take time out from my busy schedule to do a little exploring, and aside from the wonders of Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, Hanoi has tons to offer, a gorgeous city in many different ways, but aptly named the “Garden City”.  I also had the opportunity to take a train to Sa Pa, deep in the northern mountains near the southern Chinese border, land of the rice terraces.  The landscape is a tapestry of layered greens and browns with rice patties stacked one on top of the other, stretching up the mountainside.  I hiked eleven miles of these slopes in the rain and mud, across streams and waterfalls, and through emerald bamboo forests, loving every slippery step.  Our guides were just as amazing.  One of them had carried and infant on her back the entire way.  Life up in the mountains is often difficult for these villagers, but it never diminished their healthy, smiling faces.

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The best example of Vietnamese fearlessness is that they are not afraid to admit that they are afraid.  There is much to admire about these people, and I will miss them dearly.  I will continue working on my Vietnamese, for I would very much like to return some day.

Heavenly Palace Cave, Ha Long Bay



As I sit here in Ha Long City on Christmas day, half way done with my travels, I find myself changed.  It is up to the eye of the beholder to determine whether or not my transition is negative or positive.  In the light of this travel blog, one will most likely assume a change for the better, but somewhere in my transit from Casablanca to Hanoi, I lost some items very dear to me, chiefly among them, Mother Bear.   Sorry, Hawk.

This hit me pretty hard.  My spiritual guide was gone, the symbol of my serenity in the face of inevitable opposition along my journey.  In my mind, this setback perhaps perpetuated bad things to come, for as I sat down to apply for my Chinese Visa during my long stay in Vietnam as planned, I gradually discovered that it was a lost cause.  Many different factors attributed to this, among them my own shortcomings of procrastination and ghosts from past.  I could blame the Trump administration for its unwillingness to play well with others… true on a grand scale, but that would be disingenuous to myself personally.  In the last month, everything felt like it was falling apart.  I had already booked tickets to China, wrongly assuming that the whole application process would not be the red tape, bureaucratic nightmare that it is.  I will not be visiting a shaolin temple in the Fujian Provence, an experience with the undeniable potential of being some much-needed spiritual insight.  I will not be visiting my old high school buddy, Derek in Shanghai.  Long sigh.


But its pretty difficult to stare at the natural karst monuments of Ha Long Bay as the Vietmamese sun rises on a new day, and not feel grateful for what I still have… and yes, I have seen at least one rainbow here as well.  Throughout the course of this journey, my view of god has changed dramatically.  Raised in the First Congregrational Church of Christ, I have always had some semblance of a relationship with God, ranging over the years from border-line agnosticism to full-on philosophical discussions with the man himself, call me crazy.  I call it prayer.   It seems for the last ten years that God and I have been merely roommates in a shitty, two-bedroom apartment… the occasional rendezvous in the kitchen to snap at each other over dirty dishes or the like.  However, early on in this journey, we managed to share a passing joke that made us both  belly laugh, the kind where you roll around on the floor because nothing else matters.  It has spawned many other delightful interactions… being bathed by the afternoon sun of a Norwegian fjord island as untouched as a baby’s bottom… playing futbol with my new soulmates on the Tenerife beaches… watching the sun come up over the Sahara.

As I began talking to God again, I realized that his voice had changed.  It had become higher in tone, more feminine, more nurturing.  He had become she.  Of course!  Gaia!  Terra (if you wanna give her a name… I’m just gonna call her Mother Bear)!  It all makes so much sense!  In my experience with the twelve steps, my higher power has always been nature… of course not God in the traditional sense.  We had been in the middle of a falling-out for years.  As I have eluded to, there have been times when faith has eluded me.  Science and evolution seemed a lot more plausible.  They still are, but personally, this just fits me like a glove.  Plus, if you know me well, you would know that I’m a diehard environmental activist.  Why had I not seen this before?  I felt like slapping myself across the head and saying “Duh!”

I haven’t lost Mother Bear.  She never left.  Sure, her earthly avatar decided to ditch the road and settle down in Muscat or Bangkok (my layovers between Casablanca and Hanoi), but she is still with me.  In fact, Derek an I have already made plans to meet in Denver on the way back where our mutual friend, Jud lives, our own little high school reunion… so everything should work out.  It always seems to anyway.

Along with Mother Bear, I also lost my favorite watercolor brushes (I hope she takes up watercolor painting with her retirement as an expat in Thailand), but those are replaceable, and I will continue to paint the global landscapes for this blog.  I will also continue to travel, and I believe that with grace and fortitude, I am ready to handle anything the road wants to throw at me.


Continue reading “Changes”

The Casablancan Life

I came to one of two schools of the British Language Academy here in Casablanca to help Moroccan students practice and learn their English skills.  After just one session, a very prominent question arose.  Who was teaching who… me to the student, or the student to me?

Third story view from the old Casablancan British Language Academy
“Third story view from the old Casablancan British Language Academy”. Watercolor by Mark Benton

I walked into this city not knowing anything, barely a word of French or Arabic.  I gawked at the size of it.  Casablanca rivals New York in population with roughly 8 million to the world capital’s 9 million inhabitants.  This is most likely not an accurate number, considering all the undocumented people living with families.  Casablanca is by no means the tourist city that Marakech is.  What you see is what you get.  Here, it is real 21st century Moroccan living, and over the past month, in some ways and at the risk of being presumptuous, I have become one of them.


I feel very fortunate to be stationed at the old school near the Medina or “City Center”.  It is the oldest section of the downtown area, bordering the old Medina, which also lends an “old world” feeling to my neighborhood.  I would often get lost in its labyrinth, one of my favorite things to do.

The Medina

I am not sure exactly how old the apartment is that I live in, but by the looks of it and by the fact that hardly anything works, I have a fairly good idea.  Most mornings, I wake up to a quick breakfast of yogurt and coffee before setting to work on my laundry which I do by hand and hang to dry on the roof of our building.  I’m sure most 21st century Moroccans have more effecient methods, but in our apartment, we do not.  If my breakfast was not hearty enough, I will stop at a favorite cafe on the way to the Academy for an avocado juice.  A pint of that stuff will easily sustain you until lunch. There are souks, or open-air markets everywhere, offering a wide array street vendors… and the food is amazing.  I am sorry to say that I have put most of the weight back on that I had lost in the first two months of my journey.

Oumaima, a fantastic teacher at the Academy.

There are four other locations for the British Language Academy here in Morocco… another new school on the south end of Casablanca, one in the neighboring city of Berrichid, one in Fez, and one in Chefchaouen… but my students are the best.  Of course, I am biased.  I love them all like my own children, even the ones whom are older then myself.  The majority of the students are teenagers or are in their early twenties, but they are all very curious and hungry to learn, some more than others, but they know that learning English is very important for their future, no matter what vocation they choose.

IMG_20181119_135811My job is simple.  I sit down with a small group of students, speaking my first language to have a random discussion.  They ask me many questions about myself and America, and in turn, I ask about them and Morocco, which can be the best way for a tourist to learn about where they are.  I learned a great deal from my students about Marakech and Southern Morocco, and its people, the Berbers, before I even went there.  They told me of the southern snow-capped mountains adjacent to the Moroccan Sahara, of the fact that the rudimentary Arabic I was learning at the academy, would help me little with the Berbers whom have their own separate dialect.  With great expectations, I found this all to be true on a four day excursion to the south, a trip to Marikech, then through the Atlas Mountains, and a one-night camping adventure in the western Sahara Desert, complete with my own riding camel to get me out there.

The Atlas Mountains

I love talking to my students.  We share a similar humor and a love of laughter.  They laugh mostly at me and my silly accent, especially when I try to speak Arabic.  In fact, generally speaking, Moroccans are very kind and welcoming.  I have rarely met in a foreign country a person more helpful and accommodating than your average Moroccan.  In the grand scheme of time, five weeks is not a long time, but it was certainly long enough to get myself into a strict city routine, and it was just long enough to learn a little Arabic from the wonderful teachers at the academy.  It was certainly enough time to form a strong bond with the students and teachers.  I will miss them dearly.

My Arabic teacher, Sara




La Vida Buena a la Casa Alegria

The beautiful property of Yeonathan and Vered Neta sits, nestled next to a barranco (ravine) at close to 1,400 meters above sea level, on the slopes of Tenerife’s ancient volcanic network.  They are surrounded by experimental foliage they planted, dozens of varieties of fruit, nut, herb, and vegetable in a large endeavor to discover what does well in the arid, volcanic soil.  Their vegetable garden is organized in separate terraces in the traditional, steep barranco style of the Canarys.  When the rare rain comes, the terraced barranco is good for trapping as much water as possible before it all dries up.  As Yeonathan proudly gave me the grand tour of his budding perma-culture project, handing me fresh figs and clusters of grapes to sample, I knew that my time here would be well served with his brand of the “good life”, which he encouraged me to embrace fully and to expand upon as far as what the good life means to me personally.  After almost a month of being here, I have a pretty good idea of what that is.


Yeonathan and Vered’s idea of the good life is getting out of the “rat race” and off the grid… going solar, generally leaving an ultra low, environmental footprint, and enjoying the personal accomplishment of growing and producing most of their own food.  Above all, they surround themselves with friends, old and new, giving back what they’ve learned through their own extensive travels, and sharing with a younger generation of travellers their vision of healthy and happy.  Casa Alegria is their own Eden, and as an exchange for the new generation of travelers to stay here, they help Yeonathan and Vered to make their Eden more and more beautiful.


The first thing they talked to me about was their new tree house.  An architect and a series of builder/carpenters had begun construction more than a year ago, and what they showed me upon my arrival, was nothing short of inspiring.  Inside and out, the tree house was a small haven of comfort and love.  All Yeonathan and Vered knew was that they wanted some sort of rainbow motif.  If you have read my Norwegian blog from a month ago, of where I was prior to Tenerife, you might be seeing the same developing theme that I did… in fact, rainbows are far more prominent on the islands than they are in Norway.  The many photos I took of the arcing spectral hues are just the ones in which I had a camera on hand, which was less than half.


I dove into my work with a hunger that I hardly recognized anymore.  Sunday nights no longer carried with them a sense of dread for the coming week.  I was excited to wake up in the morning.  I was excited to greet my fellow workers and my hosts everyday.  Laughter became infectious, hugs replaced handshakes, and I just could not stop smiling.

Flo, Lia, Ishmael, and Mutsa.

As I became used to living and working and eating every meal with my new friends, I began assigning a different color to each roommate and each host.  After all, I was blending colors in my sleep.  This was not on the same level as sensing someone’s aura, or some other new-wave hippie ideal.  I was simply sharing and undeniable connection.  In fact, I feel much more open to potential connections going forward.


I’ve barely mentioned food thus far, and that is just not acceptable.  I have never eaten so well in my life, and get this… there was no meat.  There was fish and egg, but nothing else.  To those of you who know me, I am no vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I do enjoy a wide array of cuisine, and that was all I needed.  Nothing but fresh, organically-grown produce and local food was provided for us twenty four-seven, but 2:00 lunch everyday was for sitting down with everyone for a meal specifically prepared with love.  Even before Chef Lia from Arizona showed up, I was extremely satisfied, but then every lunch became a five-star experience.  I did not know that polenta, pumpkin, or caramelized onions (love) could taste so good.


Saturdays were for the beach in Medano.  I was suddenly a little kid again, splashing in the waves, chasing the soccer ball or frisbee, laughing until I almost drowned.  It was not the perfect skyline, or the black sand beaches, or la Montana Roja, a long- defunct volcano, jutting out into the ocean that made me feel this way.  It was not the constant, soothing wind that lured professional kite surfers from all over the world.  All of that certainly helped, but it was the people I was with.  I will never forget them.

“Kite surfers under la Montana Roja”, Watercoler by Mark Benton

Fridays and an odd Wednesday night were for hiking up to Vilaflor, the highest village in Spain where our good friend, Ishmael lived.  Ishmael is a local whom was hired by Vered and Yeonathan to oversee the terracing of their barranco.  I can’t say enough how much of a pleasure it was to work with this man.  Few can claim the ingenuity, the generosity, and the gentle spirit that is Ishmael.  It seemed that whenever we wanted, his “shop” was opened up to us.  In the center of lovely Vilaflor, sat Ishmael’s shop, a big cave of a garage with every imaginable tool and contraption cluttered in every corner and on every surface.  On a big table in the center of the shop, everyone would help to prep a feast.  I never would have thought how he could so simply prepare food that tasted the way it did.  When you were with Ishmael, you did things the way he did them, and you were better for it.


As my stay drew to a close, I hurried to finish every painting project I had originally set out for myself.  They were many, stirred on and inspired by my fellow workers.  Everyone had played a collaborative effort in most of these projects.  So much love had been put into every color that the many rainbows had afforded.  I could not imagine leaving the island without finishing one single brushstroke.


The rainbow, it seems has become a part of my life now.  It can signify or represent many different things to many different people.  For my new friends Flo and Nick, it embodies a huge gathering of diverse yet like-minded souls, sharing what little they have as they embrace whatever beautiful stretch of nature they happen upon.  For me, it has always been a symbol of a divine promise kept… a promise that I fear could soon be broken.  For future generations, the threat of wide-spread, coastal flooding is becoming a distinct possibility brought on again by the greed and evil that men do.  The rainbow now reminds me how precious, how diverse, how beautiful life is.  I have a very clear idea of what the “Good Life” means to me.  Do what you love, love the people who love you, and love yourself no matter who or what stands in your way.  All of this is at our fingertips.  It has all been provided for us on this little blue and green ball.  We just need to respect and care for it.  More than ever, I am committed to protecting our life-giving mother… this beautiful yet fragile bio-sphere, encompassing every color of the rainbow.




Introduction to Mother Bear

Yes, this is, in fact, the ongoing story of an over-the-hill, white American male in his attempt to conquer the many fears he has harboured over the years by leaping out of his comfort zone into the infinite horizons of world travel. “So who’s this ‘Mother Bear’ figure?” you might ask. Well… I will tell you.

My friend and fellow environmental activist, Arthur Blackhawk, gifted me with a small, wooden figurine of a native American woman cradling a young black bear in her arms. This was in preparation for my upcoming 8-month excursion around the world, and she was initially meant to be my “Amelie” garden gnome traveller, a more fit model to pose in my stead before spectacular, photographic backdrops of the many locales I would explore.  Yet, as I began to to take photos of this protective, nurturing woman, I began to imagine her as my guide, someone who might protect and nurture me along my chosen path.  “I am that little black bear,” I decided.  One thing I have learned in my growing experience is that, you should never attempt things alone, at least not the big endeavors.  Why would you when the task could be made so much easier?  I am travelling alone, but… am I?  It is true that there will be no one to help me should something go wrong.  When my flight to Hanoi changes yet again, creating conflicting time schedules, there will only be me to call the booking agent to set things right.  However, it will be Mother Bear who will gently urge me to speak calmly with the agent, to focus on the solution and not the problem, and to not let my fear turn to unneeded anger, for which I have suffered so greatly in the past.

Moreover, I feel that in many of the great adventure stories, there is way too much emphasis placed on the hero rather than the hero’s master, teacher, benefactor, or in this case, spiritual guide.  There would be no hero or heroine without the one who placed all her wisdom, courage, and perseverance into her pupil.  Where would Thor be without Odin?  Where would Charlie Brown be without Linus?  How far would the smurfs have gotten without Papa Smurf?  Without Uncle Ben, who would have motivated Spiderman to be a friendly, neighborhood Spiderman?  Why shouldn’t Mother Bear have the title of this blog?  Not that I’m any kind of hero.  If I was, you had might as well skip this blog now and just read some Cervantes instead.  That would be me… the old fool chasing the windmill.

No, I am not a hero… not yet at any rate, but in stepping way outside my comfort zone… maybe I could be.  Joseph Campbell said that “… in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience.  A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”  Campbell also had something to say about tackling something like this alone.  “… we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us.  The labyrinth is thoroughly known…” (thank God for the internet) “… We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find god.  And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves.  Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence.  And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”

So begins the journey of me and Mother Bear…