In So Many Words

Honest, revealing, and sometimes humorous scribblings on the people, places, and things I've had the good fortune to come across in my travels, along with poetry for good measure.

Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

By the time I got my first camera at the age of six, I already knew I wanted to be a photographer. I went on to live and work as a freelancer in Europe for almost a decade. After returning to America, another life-long dream came true when I traveled around the world for eight glorious months in 1995. But instead of taking pictures, I documented the trip in a daily journal, which later became hundreds of poems. The journal would ultimately convince me that my "dream ambition" was to be a poet. I've been writing poetry professionally for two years with published poems in both national and international literary journals and magazines, including numerous online websites. I also tutor English and American history to college students.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Today's Entry:

Odense, Denmark

The first time my feet touched Danish soil was in the summer of '82. I took a red bus (the national bus service for the nation) from Flensburg in Germany to Ribe, a small picturesque town dominated by a church. When I got off the bus the very first person I encountered was a mailman delivering letters by bicycle. He said, "good day" in Danish but there's a likely chance he could have said it in English had he known my native tongue (the Danes speak English better than many Americans). It was his willingness to greet a stranger that was refreshing to me, it would also prove to be typical of the people I'd come to know in a nation with a flag that displays the symbol of the cross.

My adventure in the nation started the minute I entered it. Esbjerg would be my next planned
stop ( there's a story for the city too, but later) and then on to Frederica to photograph the old city walls (which was really no more than low ramparts). I bought some postage stamps there too (I use to collect stamps as a hobby) and then took the noon train to Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the place where I intended to stay at a campsite for a few days.

The train that afternoon was the kind with the little separate compartments and I found one that was empty and put my backpack in the rack overhead. Just before the conductor blew the whistle (the signal for the train to depart) this guy stuck his head in the door and asked if the seat opposite me was "free" in Danish. I can still recall what Peter was wearing that Friday. He had on a white shirt with puffy sleeves, like the ones they may have worn in the middle ages and a tan corduroy sport jacket. I don't remember his pants. His hair was longish and dark brown with a heavy moustache. He looked like a between-jobs movie actor. And he wanted to talk. He told me that he was a medical student and that he planned to be a doctor like his father and his grandfather. He said his passion though was music. He wrote his own songs and played the guitar.

When we got to Odense, he invited me to an outdoor cafe on a parkside lake for a beer. There were rowboats lined up idle and I made a good shot which later sold. I think Peter was impressed with my love of photography (my passion back then) and after we had finished our drinks he said, "I'm living in the small village of hookup about 6kms south with three other people and if you would like you can put your tent up in our backyard". That was fine with me! So we walked back to the station where Peter had parked his bicycle, the one he would take home. Because of my backpack I'd have to take the bus. It would be easy Peter said. And it was.

When I found my way to the red brick house, on a road with a hog farm on one side, a horse farm on the other, and a barley farm next door, Peter was standing in the window. By that time too, it had been decided that I'd sleep in the vacant room (another memember of the house was away for the weekend). There are three things I still remember about the place. First, that wonderful plum tree in the backyard with its delicious fruit, the b/w poster in the living room with a birth control pill between two fingers and the word "HUSK" in bold letters across the top (the word for "remember" in English), and the unusual crack between the bathroom door and the floor. Someone had written in English (it was there before I came along) "Beware of Limbo Dancers". The gap was almost wide enough too! That whole weekend was fun.

I had no intentions of going the Copenhagen originally. After all, this was Scandinavia, a budget traveler's nightmare. I'd already convinced myself the place would be just another big city with not much charm. But Peter had other plans. "One out of every five Danes live there", he reminded me. He made a phone call to his brother Plys (whose real name is Klaus) who studied veterinary medicine (he would carry on the tradition too but in a slightly different way) at the only school in the nation for that training. When he got off he turned to me. "It's all set-up for you to stay in my brother's flat as long as you like because he leaves for Africa day after tomorrow. You can hitch to Nyborg and then take the ferry and then the train". It all sounded so complicated. How could I tell him I had never hitchhiked in Europe before. Who would pick me up anyway? Well, I could try!

I only waited 20 minutes! I was offered a ride by a real honest-to-goodness farmer's daughter who drove me all the way to the ferry docks. I would arrive in Copenhagen that afternoon and Plys would meet me at a subway stop a short walk from his apartment. And that's where the story begins tomorrow. By the way, the photo is of Peter and his family taken this summer. Our friendship on the other hand, goes back 23 of them.

We went bicycle riding that first afternoon. I bought along my camera and got some great shots of the farms and of the village church. I encouraged Peter to clown around for me and we did one shot where Peter was in a golden field of grain at sunset with an open black umbrella (I use to have some crazy ideas for portraits).

Get more info at: or

Today's Poem:

To Somewhere Or By

A forest that gives way to paper.
Tarpaulin scratched across pages of verbs.
A door leading to your porcelain yes.
Pink undertones entwined or a cold sore.
her spine curves into the turnstile.
He nuzzles closer, twice her size.
Language concealed in flashing signals.
There is rain on the rails.
The lavender in a dream (with ruffles).
Oil-slick bubbles in a burnt-blue shimmer.
The O in a vowel made form oak.
Mail that consists mostly of bills.
A leaf against my cheek.
Knew it was, anyway, and tug-of-warring.

This poem first appeared online at:

The family photo courtesy of Peter Marckmann.

Copyright 2005 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Friday, September 02, 2005

Today's Entry:

Tetouan, Morocco

The ferry departed from Algeciras, Spain on a warm morning in May of '83 heading through the narrow straits that separate Europe from Africa. The ship was crowded with day-trippers, mostly Spanish people who would return on the night passage. I intended to stay. At the rear end of the ship was the Rock of Gibraltar and ahead of us lay the snow-capped Rif Mountains. We were on our way to the port of Ceuta, one of two remaining Spanish colonies on the North African coast. Someone had told me this was the better route because I could avoid the seedy city of Tangier (the #1 Moroccan port of call). I'd heard many tourist horror stories about that place so I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted my first trip to Africa to be a pleasant one.

When the ferry decked I took the short walk up the hill and through the town (which is really not much more than a military outpost) to the Moroccan frontier. While standing in line to go through customs I met this girl from Canada. This was her second trip. She knew some Arabic. She had a single braid of blonde hair that had been pushed aside to make room for her backpack. I told her I was a bit nervous, that this trip was my first time. She asked me what my plans were. I told her I had no plans. She said, "well maybe you'll want to start your trip in Tetouan. It's just 30 minutes down the highway and I can recommend a very cheap hotel where you can stay". Then she asked if I was looking for drugs (Moroccan for decades has been a haven for ways to smoke yourself high). I told her I was a photographer there to gather pictures. She gave me the once over as if to say is this guy for real or what, but she went on to invite me to take a taxi with her friends and her (never take a taxi alone because its too expensive she warned) to Tetouan where they would take a bus farther south to some smoker's paradise.

The taxi passed a few camels squatted alongside the highway, obviously put there to amuse us tourists and then rolled off the main highway onto a narrower lane and through an arch that resembled the one in OK Corral. The driver let me out in the main square, a dusty place with benches and proxies for trees. The girl pointed the way to the hotel, gave me another "you don't know what you're missing look" and was gone. The hotel was dark and cool inside. When I walked in one of the two ladies sitting got up and lead me through an even darker hallway to stairs that took us up to the roof of the flat, white-washed building. I got that shock of my life when she turned around on the roof in daylight. There were henna tattoos that ran across both sides of the bridge of her nose. There was more tattoos on her hands. When my heart stopped beating so far I asked where the showers were. She went over to a small closet and opened the door, then brought out a blue plastic bucket and made the motion of emptying its contents over her head. If I had not been so tried and dusty I would have gone back to the frontier then, walking. Then, she lead me to my room with its shabby door, shaggy mattress, and straw that had been stuffed into a dingy pillages. She took out a piece of paper with the price of the room written down on it, waited for me to pay her and then vanished. I was getting scare now.

While I was trying to find a good hiding place for my valuables (especially my camera equipment) this God-awful man's voice appeared out of nowhere over a loudspeaker. I ran out of my room in search of its source. By the time I fought my way through the maze of clothes on the lines to look out over the building's edge it dawned on me exactly what was happening. The faithful were being called to pray. And for the first time that day I relaxed. But still, I'd end up spending only two days there, the highlight of which was meeting this 13-year old boy that worked at a juice bar where I stopped to make a photograph of myself in a mirror there (the shot would later be used as the poster shot for my museum exhibition in Denmark). We talked for an hour between his customers in English-Spanish-French and then I treated him to a movie at the only cinema in town the next day (he got off early so we could see it in its entirety). He even arranged for a taxi to take me back to Ceuta and was there to see me off the next morning.

In retrospective, I think Morocco was just too much of a "culture shock" for me at that time. Sure, I'd been to Turkey but it's more like Europe than an Arab country. I was just not prepared. I hope Morocco will give me another chance to appreciate its unique character before my travel days are over. I promise to do my "homework".

Get more info at: or

Today's Poem:

"The Burglary" Sonnet

Chair legs scraping against a linoleum
floor. Dust space between a stairwell.
Playing pin the tail on the donkey but
in the dark. Sounds not meant to travel.
The topology of door locks. Shoe soles.
Or on tip-toe. In air adding friction
to a room. A blueprint of the floor plan.
Blackout curtains. Adobe walls. Arroyos
that appear only in winter. Steel or glass?
Dimly the natural light. To allow the
burglar time to do his thing and leave.
And the ability to know not to interfere.
A penlight under the covers. Boots that
leave no prints. Then debating the notion
of a rehabilitated criminal. Or simply
pretend to sleep through the whole thing.

This poem first appeared online at:

Copyright 2005 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Today's Entry:

Bruges, Belgium

Sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the North", Burges, Belgium should be included on every travelers list of "most see" cities when they go to Europe. It is simply a most amazing place, one rich in history and culture. The town's wealth came from maritime trade that lasted for years until the waterway to the sea (several kilometers away) silted up.

I visited the town on my first trip to Europe in '78. I remember being at a party and telling this lady about my plans to go to Europe and she stopped me mid-sentence and said, "and don't forget to visit Bruges or Brugge as the Europeans call it because that little place is just a gem". I went back home that night thinking "if the place is so fantastic than why haven't I heard about it before now, like I've heard about Paris and Rome". Yeah, we Americans can be so "travel ignorant" sometimes. So I went to the library the next day and did my "homework" and there it was, a "diamond" of a city just like she said. I stayed at this funky little hippie-style hostel with its own restaurant during that first visit and would stay there again in '80 on the second.

As I've mentioned before, I great portion of the '80 tour was done by bicycle. The story today begins on a bike path heading out of Brussels. Brussels is one of those citites (Vienna comes to mind too) that seems to be very spread, going on and on. I thought I'd never reach the city limits that morning. The weather was clear and breezy and I had plenty of food to last the trip (you burn up a lot of calories cycling). And this trip would take me through some of the most densely populated areas of Europe. But it also makes for interesting cycling because there's always something to see, someone to meet-up with.

I remember pasting through Aalst and stopping to take some pictures and then on to Ghent where I had lunch right at the moat that surrrounds the city's ancient castle. It was on the road outside of Ghent that I cycled upon these two guys speaking German and obviously on holiday themselves. I think I must have said something like Guten Tag as I passed to get their attention because we all started cycling together. Yes, they were on holiday. Yes, they were both from Germany (a town south of Frankfurt am Main called Neu-Isenburg). And yes, they too were on their way to Bruges. So now I had company!

When people would meet me like that I could always expect the same question. The question was always, "where are you from" (it made no difference that I spoke English) . Many Europeans had no clue I suppose because of my "exotic" looks. You see, I'm part French, American Indian (Cherokee) and African blood and each part shows up somewhere in my features. Europeans have mistaken me for being from Brazil, Morocco, Cuba, Cape Verde, and even Vietnam. You get use to it after awhile. Most people simply feel more comfortable when they can put you in some kind of "category". They mean no harm. You get use to it.

Anyway, once they found out I was from America, they bombarded me with questions and before we knew it we were on the outskirts of Bruges. And like I said, I'd been there a couple of years before so I knew exactly where to take these fellow budget-travelers. We all got a dorm room together and Markus (who was 19 then) and I became fast friends because he was keen on photography too. We spent the next two days wondering around in search of pictures (and there are many possibilities too). I talked them into going to a local disco with me one of the nights (I think they had fun but it's hard to say) and I found this group of local patrons to chat-up with. Here I was out on the dance floor in a town where much of the original ancient city walls were still intact, where the loud music literally bounced off one of the nearby watchtowers to that wall. The thought was mind-blowing.

Markus and I would end up becoming friends for years. We would write each other during my two years in America before I returned in '82 to live. I would visit him and his fwhole family on two occasions (one time for Christmas) and I'd visit him at his own place once he began his civil army duty in Hamburg. Our friendship would last until he became a merchant marine and went out to sea. The first church service I ever attended in Germany was with the Becker family. The first tomatoes off the vine I'd eat in Europe would be from his grandfather's garden. Yes Martha, there are some things we'll always remember.

Get more info at: or

Today's Poem:

Sonnet #7

In another pagan
sheen of
countless riches
An Adam's apple
the size of
a ripe fig
Knowing desire's
knothole is always
close at hand
Artificial leaves
reach up towards
a perpetual sun
Lights a candle
in the shape
of a fish
In a recruited
smile spread
like feathers
with an ample
hand of underthigh
to breaststroke
Until the pen
leaks out
of words

This poem first appeared online at:

Copyright 2005 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Today's Entry:

Christchurch, New Zealand

My first glimpse of New Zealand was during a flight from neigboring Sydney, Australia to
Christchurch. I guess you could say I discovered the beauty of this nation long before anyone came up with the idea of filming Lord of the Rings there. I lucked out by traveling on a crystal clear day. This was in November of '95, so signs of spring were everywhere (the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere). The plane glided over snowy ridges that ran almost
down the middle of the south island, then on over one river basin after another, until we reach the city's international airport.

Now if you were to ask, "Maurice how many times have you been through cutoms going in and out of different countries", the answer would be "I really don't know". What I do know is that customs at Christchurch was done in a very swift and cordial fashion. I'd remember that. The customs agent even gave me directions to the tourist info desk and the taxi stand out front.

I can count the times I've taken a taxi in my travels! As I've said before, I'm frugal with money and personally, I've rather spend that taxi fare on a good meal instead. But I'd just missed the bus to the city and another one wouldn't be along for 30min. So I signaled for the next taxi in queue. The driver was Pakistani and he wanted to talk. Once he'd found out where I was from and what I was doing there he glanced in his rearview mirror and said, "you know, you just missed Her Majesty's Royal visit by only a few days". It took me a moment to realize what he meant. After a pause he continued, "They still adore her here, maybe more than her English subjects back home". Two stops lights later and he started up again, "Crowds of people stood right along this very road waving British flags". Then he'd had enough. I guess he figured after all that even someone from America would "get the picture".

And I did get it. I got plenty of then infact, because photographs of the aging Queen were still posted all over town, in shop windows, on telephone poles, in cafes and pubs. Everywhere you turned you saw a glossy photograph of her in some brightly colored outfit, including hats that matched and that inseperable handbag. I went into a shop to buy postcards and there was a picture of her standing directly outside of it, surrounded by a rosey-cheeked crowd of gawkers.
I was beginning to feel the "royal fever" myself. But why wouldn't the townspeople adore her I thought, heck most of Christchurch looked more "English" than many towns in England.

The youth hostel was nice too and located right in the heart of town. It was housed on the second floor above a youth center for Maori teens. On my second day there, I went down and introduced myself. They turned the music down and asked me to stay for tea . I listened to them talk about the struggle of the world's "underclasses" that afternoon until dusk. And when I left I thought to myself how wonderful it was to see young people as commited today to a just cause as any other generation of enlighted youth would be. Yes I thought, "the beat goes on".

Get more info at: or

Today's Poem:

With An Accompanying Soundtrack

Later, the truck is pulled out of the murky
water as brave bystanders look on.

More apples than water. A photograph of her standing
next to an open window. The tea water boiling. More
like a 60-watt smile. Or a sign that says "For Day Use
Only". Cathedral or river. Tire tracks along a muddy
bank. Weeds wishing they could be more brazen. The
sound a busted screen door makes. "Home to me is
anywhere there are rolling hills that work up to one
gentle plateau", she says, while adding more sky to the
branches of our backyard tree. "Yeah, and there's sun
in your hair even at midnight", I reply, searching for
the bottle opener before our dam wakes up. Or try to
imagine the sun as a yellow stain on the horizon...

a forest cut away for a causeway...
more natural phenomena still unexplained.

And how the land says so much as it wades ankle-deep
in a row of porcelain wash basins...

air balloons drifting over a heelless crater.

Then gradually darker, into a blood-orange perhaps.

This poem first appeared online at:

Copyright 2005 by Maurice Oliver. All Rights Reserved.