Skip to content

Therapy Dogs Lend Helping Paws to Children with Autism

By Gwen Gibson

Debi Krakar, Head of Austin Dog Alliance

Debi Krakar, Head of Austin Dog Alliance

The Austin Dog Alliance is helping children with autism to learn new social skills by pairing them with therapy dogs in classes that are fun, educational and therapeutic. In this ground-breaking program, trained and licensed handlers, with an understanding of autism, bring their own dogs to the classes which are held twice weekly in ADA’s northwest Austin headquarters.

 With the incidence of autism in the United States at epidemic rates, this program, known as the “K9 Club,” offers a welcome and promising new treatment for children with various degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).The Autism Society of Greater Austin strongly supports the program as do many parents whose children have taken the K9 classes. The University of Texas, meanwhile, has launched a scientific study to officially determine the program’s efficacy. The results will be released nationally, says Debi Krakar, executive director of the ADA and a firm believer in the strong bond between humans and dogs.

All activities in ADA’s K9 classes are planned so that the students have fun. “Our theory is that you can teach social skills to children with special needs if they are doing something they love and a lot of them love animals,” Krakar says.

The K9 classes are taught by Krakar, special education autism specialists, and the licensed dog trainers who volunteer their time. Other experts, including veterinarians, groomers and search and rescue teams, visit the classes and share their expertise with the kids. “The students learn basic dog training principles, about a variety of dog breeds, while learning how to interact with their peers,” Krakar adds.  

Field trips, parties, painting projects and “poop” relays are also part of the curriculum.

Through these activities, the children learn to understand dog language. “They learn that when the dog is cowering it is nervous and they need to change their position or cue,” Krakar explains. “When they learn to comprehend this, it leads to comprehending what their friends or other people are feeling.”

Riley walking with boy

Riley walking with boy

Dogs and other pets have been used for decades as therapeutic partners for children and adults with special needs. But the ADA’s K9 program for autistic children introduces new elements to such programs by bringing the children and the especially trained dogs together in exciting classes, away from home and school, where they are taught by many experts, not just one doctor or one therapist operating in a clinical setting.

The K9 classes are among many pet therapy projects offered by the pace-setting Austin Dog Alliance, which Krakar launched six years ago with a grubstake of only $80 and one rescued shelter dog named Bennie. For several years Krakar worked, hit or miss, out of her home and in various borrowed and donated spaces. Today the ADA is a major, non-profit organization with some 300 volunteers who visit some 70 sites a year with their special dogs, bringing comfort, joy, company and confidence to children and adults. In the first three quarters of 2011 they worked with 13,000 people in schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes and in classes held at ADA headquarters.

The ADA also finds permanent homes for abandoned dogs through its rescue and adoption programs. Krakar’s own family has fostered over 500 rescued dogs since she started ADA in 2006.

The K9 Club for autistic children evolved some two years ago out of these programs and out of Krakar’s personal knowledge of the challenges facing children with autism and their families. Two of her four children have different degrees of ASD.

Competent and determined, Krakar runs the ADA with a sense of purpose and a sense of humor. She is well qualified for the task. Krakar holds a master’s degree in accounting and information systems from the University of Illinois. She is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and licensed Delta Society Pet Partner instructor.  

Krakar lives in northwest Austin with her four children, her four dogs, various rotating foster dogs and—in her words—“a very supportive husband.”

The need for treatments like ADA’s K9 program is urgent. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in every 110 American children has been diagnosed with ASD, including one in 70 boys. Some experts believe this is an underestimate. Among them is Ann Hart, president of the Autism Society of Greater Austin, and the mother of a 26-year-old son with ASD.

“We are approaching crisis proportions of people with autism in our country which the Autism Society has been talking about for many years,” says Hart. “My son’s at the beginning of a tsunami of adults with autism leaving school and entering the adult world.”

To date no definitive cause or cure for the disease has been discovered. But Krakar insists that children with autism can be helped, through programs like the K9 Club, to gain strength, self-confidence and language and other skills.

The results can tug at your heart.

 “l love watching the sheer joy on the face of a student in our K9 Club when he or she masters a dog training skill,” says Krakar. “I love it when parents tell me their kids can do more than they thought. Some of our kids, for instance, have learned enough about how to behave in a group that their parents have let them attend a movie with their peers. Now all of a sudden, they have this new perception of their child.”

Stop the Presses

Time to toast not roast old-time journalists

 

“We hate to see The Evening Sun go down.”  A rival newspaper mourned the passing of the once influential New York Sun with this headline on January 4, 1950. In those days, the death of a newspaper—conservative or liberal, tabloid or broadsheet—was considered a disaster.   

Today as more and more newspapers bite the dust few rival papers are left to bemoan their passing. And the public reaction to the demise of this once powerful medium has been downright insensitive.  

“Old-school newspapers seem like aging silent screen stars…” Maureen Dowd wrote in a New York Times column. The Newseum in Washington, DC—which honors the nation’s daily newspapers–should be called the “Newsoleum,” Stephen Colbert proclaimed on his comedy show.

In the interest of old school journalists who, like me, bruise easily, I’ve been looking for bright spots in this picture and have found enough to believe (rationalize?) that we’re sounding the death knell for newspapers prematurely.

Fact one: There are still 40,000 newspaper journalists working full time in this country, according to a recent article in the American Journalism Review.

Fact two:  Many old people, even those fluent in the language of the web, still read newspapers (where available) regularly.

Fact three: It’s difficult to potty train your puppy on a Kindle or an I-pad.

I’m also encouraged by the way younger journalists are carrying on the traditions set by my generation of reporters. These include a taste for the grape, the healthy use of cynicism and aggressiveness when covering a story, the conviction that a messy desk is the sign of creativity, the willingness to work for ridiculously low pay in order to see one’s byline in print or in cyberspace, and a work ethic which demands that you cover the story whether you’re sick, your grandmother just died or you cannot get a baby sitter.

A vintage–and true—anecdote, which illustrates this tradition, involves the cub reporter who was covering the race riots in Montgomery, Ala., in the late 1950s, for United Press International.  After 48 non-stop hours on the job he pleaded for relief, moaning, “I’ve only got two hands.” When Grant Dillman, then head of UPI’sWashingtonoffice, heard of this, he fired back: “Fire the crippled bastard.”

Unhappily the old-time pace setters like Dillman get little recognition these days.   Recently, I asked a young friend, a promising journalist, if he recognized the following names: Merriman Smith, Robert Donovan, Johnny Apple, Ernie Pyle, Martha Gelhorn, Hildy Johnson or Walter Cronkite. My young friend only knew Cronkite—as a TV anchorman. He didn’t know that Cronkite, who started out at the University of Texas on The Daily Texan, had first been an award-winning, front-line print reporter who covered D-Day from a B-17 and went on bombing missions over Germany. .

Merriman Smith, author of several books and one of the 20th century’s most colorful White House reporters, was the first to close presidential press conferences by shouting, “Thank you, Mr. President.”  

Bob Donovan, the New York Herald Tribune’s Washington bureau chief (and one of my former bosses), wrote the best-selling book, “PT-109,” about how John F. Kennedy saved his crew in World War II when a Jap destroyer sliced his boat in two.

Johnny Apple, the well-rounded New York Times reporter, was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from art, music, politics and foreign policy to the proper zinfandel to serve with what food in what country.

Ernie Pyle, one ofAmerica’s most beloved war correspondents, wrote for and about the men with whom he marched in combat in World War II. His stories became the benchmark for war reporters everywhere.

Martha Gelhorn, one of the first women war correspondents, took incredible chances to get a story, lying in the mud alongside soldiers inSpain, posing as a stretcher bearer during the D-Day landings atNormandyand flying with British pilots on bombing raids overGermany.

And Hildy Johnson?  Well, that was a trick question. Hildy was the hotshot reporter in the 1950s play, The Front Page, who described a newspaperman as “a cross between a bootlegger and a whore.”

 Clearly today’s young journalists are producing their own icons and setting their own new precedents. I’m impressed with their versatility and technical skills as they tackle all echelons of the industry—shooting and editing videos and photos, writing for television and radio and reporting news and gossip on their blogs and web sites and the constantly evolving social networks.

Admittedly, I wonder whether all those stories that pop up on the social networks every nanosecond have been properly fact-checked, documented and verified. But I’m grateful for the way these networks can connect and inform people around the world in times of crises.

Despite the phenomenal growth of this digital media and the new journalism it has spawned, I still believe we old timers can keep alive a boutique market for a few well-written newspapers that we can hold in our hands, scribble on, underline, clip stories from and read leisurely over our morning coffee or in the bathroom where so much creative thinking is done. 

Meanwhile, it’s time to toast the muckraking hard-core journalists who set the standards that many young journalists follow today, i.e. objectivity, irreverence, solid reporting, and a genuine devotion to the public good and the perfect martini.

Gwen Gibson

Coping with a Know-it-All Computer

Breaking in a new state-of-the-art computer is not for the faint of heart. You need tact, patience and a genuine regard for the psychological well-being of both the computer and yourself. I realized this shortly after bringing home a new, blue velvet Gateway laptop from Best Buy. 

The geeks there told me that guide books are no longer available because computer technology is improving so rapidly that guide books are outdated by the time they’re written. Most people teach themselves today by trial and error, they said.

What they didn’t tell me was that my computer, which is programmed to solve problems on its own, could become a pedagogic pest. Once turned on, it’s raring to go, like a puppy that sees you with its leash in your hand.

I named my computer Hubert because it reminds me of Hubert Humphrey, the long time U.S. Senator from Minnesota and Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. For those of you too young to remember, Humphrey was a likeable, compulsive talker who was so eager to please he could become annoying. My computer is like that.

Unless I start writing immediately Hubert will go ballistic with ideas and pop-up suggestions (Do you want to enter this date? Did you mean to hyphenate uptodate?).  Sometimes without even asking, Hubert will combine words I don’t want to combine,  capitalize words I don’t want to capitalize and—so help me—go “tsk tsk” under its breath if I use a double “l”  where one is now correct, or write “dialogue” instead of “dialog” which is  comme il faut these days.

I’m not new to computers. An old-time journalist, I have used these electronic contraptions since they first made my old faithful IBM selectric typewriter obsolete. And I can operate them easily enough; I just can’t discipline them.  

When I sit down to write a story, using Microsoft Office 2010, I want the simplest format possible, just a quiet, blank screen before me that I can sit and stare at until the muse strikes. Instead, my know-it-all computer, offers me a plethora of choices that I don’t want to make concerning fonts, type size, spacing, bullets, formatting, numbering, strikethroughs, subscripts and superscripts.    

Once I log onto the Internet, Hubert goes wild with choices that are hard to resist.  Here I can chat and mobile text with friends. I can check on my credit rating, my IQ, my lineage or my sex appeal. Or I can listen to dress ads in Spanish or opt for some audio or video diversions. Several times I’ve pressed the video icon accidentally and wound up staring into my own frustrated face.

For weeks, after coming home with Hubert, I would spend half an hour in these diversionary activities before logging on to my e-mail or, heaven help us, the heady intoxication of the social networks.

I finally realized that in order to write I had to turn off my computer and work in a quiet spot using the primordial writing tools favored by many famous authors–i.e., a yellow writing tablet and a ball point pen. (I know what you’re thinking but, no, I don’t use a quill pen.)

James Joyce, I told myself, certainly didn’t use a computer when writing “Ulysses.” Ernest Hemingway may have used a typewriter occasionally but he never coped with a computer. Truman Capote often wrote with pencil while lying down, his coffee and cigarettes nearby (the martinis came later in the day).  

Okay. I’m not in that league. But thinking in this vein gave me the will to close Hubert and start writing in longhand at my dining room table where I have a quiet view of the live oak trees outside my condo.

The first time I entered a pre-written story on my computer I was able to type away at a respectable pace. Obviously pleased, Hubert inserted a smiley in my copy as if to say, “Way to go!”  

When I reported this to the tech experts at the Best Buy outlet in northwest Austin, they were not surprised.

“But wait until you start using the next generation of computers,” one said brightly.   “They will not only smile at you, they will read your mind, edit your copy and post it on the appropriate sites.”

I thanked him for this information while silently vowing to lay in a lifetime supply of writing pads and ball point pens.                                  

Gwen Gibson

Frida Kahlo – Austin’s most well-traveled woman

Frida Kahlo (self portrait)AUSTIN –Since the 1980s, when “Fridamania” started to roll, a 1940 self-portrait by the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has become the most widely requested and widely traveled work in the art collections of the Harry Ransom Center, the eminent museum and research library on the University of Texas Austin campus.

Titled “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” this symbolically rich portrait has travelled more than 100,000 miles since 1990 while appearing in major museums around the world and acquiring widespread cult followings. Ironically, “Frida,” as the painting is affectionately called, is better known around the world than in Austin, probably because she is on the road more than at home.

Frida did stay home in Austin for six months in 2011, but she took off again in January 2012 to join major exhibitions in Los Angeles,  Canada and Mexico. She has been at the L.A. County Museum of Art since Jan. 29. Her appearance here winds up May 6. Next its off to the Musee National des Beaux-arts in Quebec City, Canada, where she will be on display from  from June 7 to September 3.  Her appearance at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City extends from September 27 to January 13, 2013.

Frida will stay home in Austin from January to August, 2013, reigning solemnly from her perch just inside the entrance to the Ransom center, before starting another tour.

The famous 1940 Kahlo portrait was among 102 pieces of Mexican art collected by photographer Nickolas Muray. The Random Center bought the collection in 1966 from Muray’s family in New York City, just months after Muray’s death. One of Kahlo’s many lovers, Muray had purchased the portrait from Kahlo when she needed money.

 The cost has not been made public, since the Ransom Center “refrains from putting a value or estimate” on its works, said a spokesperson. But today one thing is certain: Frida Kahlo portraits fetch big bucks. One self-portrait sold to a European collection in 2005 for $5.25 million, reports art critic Jason Kaufman.

An invalid from age 18, Kahlo painted some 80 self-portraits, often while bedridden.  She completed the 1940 portrait at a crossroads in her life, as she was breaking up with Muray and divorcing her husband, muralist Diego Rivera.  Sacred and profane, this shows Frida with a spider monkey, given to her by Rivera, on one shoulder. On the other perches a cat seemingly ready to pounce on the dead hummingbird dangling from her thorn necklace, which is similar to Christ’s crown of thorns.

Kahlo died in 1954, at age 47. Her works were largely overlooked until the 1980s when surrealism and multiculturalism emerged in the arts. A biography of her exotic life by Hayden Herrera in 1983 helped to propel her from obscurity to iconic fame, as did two movies of her life. The 2002 biopic starred Mexican actress Salma Hayek as Frida.

Since 1990, the Ransom Center has loaned “Frida” 33 times to other art institutions, from San Francisco to New York City and from Canada to Australia. She always travels in style, with her own travelling case, her own escort, her own reservation in the hold of a major airline.  A bonded truck takes her to the airport. She rides on a cushion of air in a special, narrow case that’s placed inside another crate. Her escort sees her into and out of the hold, walks her through customs and hands her to her new hosts who provide stringent security.

The Ransom Center acquired two other works by Kahlo when it purchased the Muray collection in 1966. They are “Still Life with Parrot and Fruit” (1951), an oil painting, and “Diego y Yo” (1930), a drawing. This is on such brittle paper it is only shown to scholarly researchers.

The officially recognized Kahlo oeuvre includes only some 200 works. Small, but compelling, they reflect her love of Mexico’s traditions, history and mixed cultures. They also document the lifelong pain she suffered from a traffic accident when she was a teenager.  Her paintings were not widely recognized in her lifetime.  A New York City gallery held a one-woman exhibition of her works in 1938, but it was 1953, the year before her death, before her first solo exhibition was held in Mexico City.

Since her “rediscovery” in the 1980s Kahlo has become known—in art circles and popular culture—as one of the 20th century’s greatest Mexican artists. Many boast  that she was a feminist before that term was invented.

Thousands of web sites are devoted to Kahlo’s memory. Her name appears on such marketable gadgets as mouse pads, key chains, T-shirts, and dolls. Kahlo’s niece, Isolda Kahlo, has been marketing Frida KahloTequila in Mexico for several years. In 2001, the United States Postal Service put Frida’s1931 self-portrait on a 34-cent stamp.

Kahlo’s posthumous fame often focuses more on her fascinating life than on the complexity and importance of her art work. Born in Coyoacan, near Mexico City, she was of mixed heritage. Her father, a photographer, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in Mexico in 1891. Her mother was of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent. Kahlo grew up during the Mexican revolution and, along with Rivera, she was an active and outspoken Socialist and Communist. Her home in Mexico City, the Blue House, or Casa Azul, was a mecca for international intelligentsia. Her many lovers included artist-designer Isamu Noguchi, Communist leader Leon Trotsky, and the great entertainer Josephine Baker.  But her true love was Rivera, whom she married twice.

Also keeping her fascinating legend alive today are periodic “discoveries” of Kahlo paintings and personal items that are questionable at best. The largest trove of such “rediscovered” Kahlo folklore is owned by Carlos Noyola and his wife Leticia Fernandez, owners of an antique store, La Buhardilla, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This includes more than 1,200 items–oil paintings, drawings, diaries, letters and the painted boxes in which Kahlo allegedly kept such ephemera.

The Noyolas say they bought the collection between 2004 and 2007 from a reclusive Mexico City lawyer who had purchased it from a woodcarver who had bartered with a needy Kahlo for the items. In the book “Finding Frida Kahlo,” published in 2009 by Princeton Architectural Press, Barbara Levine, former director of exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, curates the Noyola collection lending it authenticity. This didn’t satisfy the Rivera-Kahlo Trust in Mexico City, which owns the copyrights to Kahlo’s works. The trust brought suit last year charging the Noyola works are fakes.

In deciding the case, the Mexican attorney general did not take a stand on the authenticity of the works stating only that the trust failed to prove they were counterfeit. So the wrangling goes on with descendants of both Kahlo and Rivera taking stands on opposing sides.

What would Frida think of all this? Peter Mears, associate curator at the Ransom Center, who frequently escorts Frida on her travels, believes “she would be astounded and pleased.

“She really is an iconic figure,” Mears says. “She has been martyred.  No one predicted how remarkable her effect would be. It just keeps rolling. I used to say evolving, but it’s not evolving. It’s rolling.”

The Qwerty Quandary

 Like many old timers, I have grudgingly accepted the passing of such favorite things as hand-written letters, penny candy, Brownie cameras, vinyl records, 15-cent McDonald hamburgers, elevator operators and the friendly, human voice that once answered our inquiring telephone calls.  But I am alarmed by threats to an even more cherished tradition: the qwertyuiop keyboard.

          The loss of this 137-year-old system, better known as Qwerty, would be traumatic for both old and young users. Practically everyone who has learned to touch type in the English language since 1874 has done so on a keyboard where the 10 letters q-w-e-r-t-y-u-i-o-p appear on the top line of the lettered keys. And most of us who have used the system for some 50 years can still tickle the keyboard at an impressive speed.

          This is one skill I have that impresses my granddaughter, that and the fact I can still do the soft shoe.

          The qwertyuiop keyboard is based on the layout created in 1873 by an Englishman, C. Latham Shales, for use on his typewriter. It first appeared on a mechanical Remington typewriter in 1874. The configuration was intended to keep those keys most likely to be pressed consecutively well separated so they would not jam. (Obviously such measures are no longer necessary. But who’s counting?)

          Efforts to replace the qwertyuiop keyboard with more efficient systems have been tried over the years but have repeatedly failed, possibly because of our nostalgic fixation on this comforting old system. This is not unique to seniors; Qwerty whets the imagination of all ages. Witness the many Qwerty quips and tricky qwertyuiop word games on the web and elsewhere.

          The nickname Querty has even made it into dictionary.com but not yet the OED.

          The pronunciation of qwertyuiop is a matter of personal taste. I have heard it pronounced with three, four and five syllables. The five-syllable version—quer-ty-oo-ee-op—is said with a catchy cadence.

          Despite all of this fascinating interest in Qwerty, there are danger signs on the horizon. The computer geeks at Best Buy, whom I consult frequently, call Qwerty “the dinosaur in the digital age.” An article in The New York Times Magazine on August 15, 2010, said that many designers believe our tenacious commitment to Qwerty is “holding up a revolution in interface design that should have started with the touch screen.”

          Other, more subtle signs that the digital wave is lapping at our keyboards creep up daily. Look at the abbreviated keyboards on some smart phones and iPads which look like Querty but act more like apps. Some have even added freestanding “dot.com” keys.

          Next thing we know some genius will introduce an alphabetical keyboard where the first line of letters starts with a-b-c-d-e. I think anyone who does so should be handcuffed to a 1930 mechanical Underwood typewriter until he or she learns to touch type on this new-fangled system.

          I admit that Qwerty is bizarre, baroque, inefficient and hopelessly out of style. What’s not to like about a system with so many familiar human frailties? I propose we keep it  around for fun and games and for the sense of comfort this querulous old friend still gives us.

(c)

Mystical Morocco—Still a Mecca for Tourists

By Gwen Gibson

Camels EverywhereFrom the High Atlas Mountains to the lonesome shifting sands of the Western Sahara, Morocco offers the visitor a labyrinth of stories, dreams, contrasts, mysteries and myths. But when I talk about my recent trip to this exotic country friends often ask the same three basic questions. One: Why did you go to North Africa when there was so much turmoil there? Two: How was the food? Three: Aren’t you too old to be riding camels?

Actually, I love the questions as they allow me to expound on the many faces of Morocco as it moves steadily toward democracy.

I travelled throughout Morocco in March with 15 congenial members of the Texas Exes Flying Longhorns, a travel group composed of University of Texas graduates and their spouses or friends. My roommate for this glorious but arduous two-week trip was my good friend, Josephine Sherfy of Austin, a UT graduate. If you must know, we are both octogenarians.

Before starting our journey, we checked with the State Department and copious news sources about conditions in Morocco. Moroccan youth, seeking more democracy, had started a wave of protests on February 20. This resulted in 135 serious injuries but subsequent protests have seen less violence. The consensus in March was that Morocco, in the northwest corner of Africa, would weather this Arab spring in relative calm—despite the turmoil in other Arab countries. The optimism stemmed, in part, from the popularity of Morocco’s young king, Mohammed VI, and his recent promises of new reforms.

Reassured, we flew on Royal Air Moroc from New York to Casablanca where we were met by our tour director, Abdellatif Benharima. A walking Wikipedia, fluent in six languages, Abdel (as he is best known) informed us daily about Morocco’s mystical past and its current politics as he led us to every interesting site a tour group could pack into fourteen ten-hour days.  Except for a horse and buggy ride in midtown Marrakech and a camel ride to die for in the Sahara, we traveled daily in the same comfortable bus driven by the same excellent driver.

From the airport Adbel steered us directly to nearby Rabat, the capital city, where we saw one of Morocco’s most popular tourist sites:  the Hassan Tower and the nearby Mausoleum of Mohammed V.  The tower is the unfinished minaret of a mosque meant to be the largest in the Islamic world.  Built in the twelfth century by Almohad sultan Yacoub al Mansour, it was left unfinished at Mansour’s death. In sharp contrast is the magnificent Mausoleum next door, a white silhouette topped by a traditional green tiled roof and fronted by mounted royal guards. The mausoleum was commissioned in 1961 by the late King Hassan II to honor his father, Mohammed V, and completed in 1971.The tombs of Mohammed V, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah lie here today.

In Rabat, we also toured the grounds of the walled, 17th century Palais Royal and surrounding Andalusia gardens. This is the official royal residence. But the current king, who has distanced himself from his father, Hassan II, resides in his villa, Les Sablons, just across the river. Mohammed VI does, however, utilize the many other royal palaces that Morocco maintains for the king’s pleasure.

“M6,” as he is often called, became king in 1999, at age 36, on the death of his father. One of his first reforms was to close the palace harems and free his father’s forty concubines. He has since granted Moroccan women the right to say “no” to marriage and “yes” to divorce—major feats in this mostly Muslim country.

In 2002, Mohammed VI married Selma Bennani, a “modern” Muslim woman, schooled in the computer sciences, who is often compared to Princess Diana because of her charity work. Both the king and his wife, now Princess Lalla Salina, are half-Arab and half-Berber, a common heritage in Morocco where Berbers, the country’s original inhabitants, form some 40 percent of the population.

Our odyssey continued from Rabat to Menkes, Fez, Erfoud, Ouarzazate,  Marrakech and Casablanca, plus a dozen remote mountain villages along the way. Even in the poorest villages, most homes have TV satellites. Asked what these natives watch, Abdel said, with a straight face, “Desperate Housewives.”

Morocco embraces four high mountain ranges, part of the world’s largest desert and 2,200 miles of coast line along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.  We got a taste of it all.  Once in the dazzling, snow-covered High Atlas Mountains, as our bus parked near a precipitous cliff, Abdel teased: “I don’t think you expected this in Morocco.”

Descending the mountain we negotiated scores of hairpin turns on the narrow roads built by the French when they occupied Morocco.

woman in burqaIt takes a book to describe the many mosques, palaces, kasbahs, souks and other historical sites in this ancient country. Here are a few of the many I would put on a “must-see” list:

*The Roman ruins of Volubilis, near Menkes. A UNESCO world heritage site, this is the largest of the 17 colonies established by the Romans in Morocco more than two thousand years ago.

*The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Completed in 1993 at a cost of more than $800 million, this magnificent structure, designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, dominates the Casablanca skyline. Unusually bright and modern, the Hassan II Mosque will accommodate 26,000 worshippers inside and thousands more outside. Some 360 loudspeakers are used during services. Part of the mosque, commissioned by Hassan II, sits on a platform over the Atlantic. A few blocks away is one of Morocco’s largest shantytowns—a glaring reminder of the division here between the rich and poor.

*The huge, bustling medinas of Fez and Marrakech, Morocco’s largest inner cities where residents still cling to ancient ways–and the ville nouvelles in the suburbs where the well-to-do live in modern, upscale style.

*The quiet and beautiful Jardin Majorelle in midtown Marrakech. This exotic botanical garden nurtures over 300 plant species. The cobalt blue walls and vases are the signature of Yves Saint Laurent who lived and worked here from 1980 until his death in 2008. His ashes are scattered in the garden.

*Ifrane, Morocco’s most atypical town. High in the Middle Atlas Mountains, Ifrane is a quaint ski resort town with Swiss chalet style homes set amid cedar and pine groves. It is also home to the prestigious Al Akhawayn University. Funded by the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Al Akhawayn is patterned after an American liberal arts university.

We were welcomed everywhere, especially by tradespeople eager to sell us everything from beads, blankets, scarfs and djellabahs to cosmetics made from the oils of the argan tree and guaranteed to restore our lost youth. Josephine and I even drew hugs, smiles and V signs on the day we wore our Obama T-shirts.

The food at the many restaurants we patronized–to answer question two above—ranged from good to great.  As a vegetarian, I was impressed with the variety of vegetables and fruits served with dates, almonds, olives, succulent soups and honey cakes, and the ever present sweet mint tea. Many dishes are prepared in a tajine, a round clay jar, with fish, meat or vegetables roasted over couscous and topped with rich sauces.

Two of restaurants we patronized illustrate why Morocco is called a country of contrasts. One, the Dinarjet, is deep in Rabat’s medieval medina and reached through dark, narrow passageways. But step inside the Dinarjet and you are in another world. Housed in a spacious 17th century house, the restaurant resembles an Andalusia palace with beautiful mosaics and graceful arches.  Musicians play soft string instruments while an attentive staff serves you five courses of traditional Moroccan food with appropriate wines.

From another world is Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Established in 2004 by Kathy Kriger, a former counselor with the American embassy, this seven-year-old restaurant mimics the décor and architecture of the seductive piano bar at the heart of the 1942 movie “Casablanca.” Ironically, the movie was filmed almost exclusively on the Warner Brothers Studios lot in Burbank, CA, and neither Humphrey Bogart nor Ingrid Bergman nor “Sam,” the pianist, ever set foot in Morocco. But here it sits, Casablanca’s first ever Rick’s Place, serving fresh fish from the Atlantic and—as we can personally attest—packin’ them in.

Accommodations in the six hotels we used were first rate. At the Sofitel Palais Jamai in Fez, where the halls are perfumed daily, we were greeted with roses. At the Kasbah Hotel Xaluca in Erfoud, we were greeted with belly dancers and a local band playing Morocco jazz. At all six hotels we were greeted with sweet mint tea and warm wash rags. All had swimming pools, television and internet access.

Never too oldTo answer question three: No, I am not too old to ride a camel, nor is Josephine. We proved this by joining our group on a Lawrence of Arabia-type safari across the golden sands of the Sahara. This wasn’t easy. The African camels (dromedaries) we rode didn’t come with saddles or stirrups, only a blanket and a small bar that served as a rein. Clinging to this we rode into the dunes, stopping at a high point to watch the sunset. Coming down, I thought one of us would surely somersault over the camel’s nose. But we made it, and thanks to Susan Cook of Houston, a fellow traveler and excellent photographer, we have pictures to prove it.

A fourth question friends frequently ask is: “Would you go back?” My answer is: Yes, in a Morocco minute. I want to visit the places we missed; revisit some of the special sites we did see and, yes–just maybe–ride that camel again.