Saturday, February 28, 2015

The first girl is always named Fatima.

How else do you celebrate the Saharan sunset?
One of my shoes rolled 400 feet down the dune after my cavorting, but let's start back in Rabat.

For a dollar, a man hands me a molehill of snails and a bowl of the spicy broth that killed the little beasties. I had passed so many ghoulal vendors on the street in Rabat, and finally couldn't resist the curiosity cat.

Food poisoning can be a worry for another day.

After the mountain heights of Chefchaouen, the seaside warmth felt amazing and I stripped down as soon as I got off the bus. With the sun in my face, I just started walking towards the Atlantic, passing terraces filled with Rabatians lounging with espressos. I was splurging on my own room that night, but that just meant paying $10 for some sleep without the sounds and smells of other people.

I finally found Bab Laalou, and after mint tea and peanut cookies with my hostess, I exit the standard medina maze and wander past a sprawling cemetery that dips into the sea.

With squishy sand between my toes, lunch is a smorgasbord of fried fish and eggplant by the Rue des Consuls, and a fresh beignet for dessert.

Hey, nobody goes on holiday to maintain their three abs.

The souk here is the classiest I've seen in Morocco so far, no traces of Christian prisoners being sold into slavery.

I spend the day poking around Rabat, reading under Hassan Tower, and getting grass stains in the gardens facing Salé. It's Rabat's ancient rival, the oldest city on the Atlantic coast, dating back to Phoenician times in the 7th century BC.

Salé was known to the Romans as being infested with elephants.

The animal below in the Kasbah is not an elephant.

The mosque adjacent to Hassan Tower
I wake up again before sunrise for the train to Casablanca, and Zakia has laid out bread, marmalade, shreds of butter for breakfast. When train tickets are $3.50, you can't really say no.

Casablanca is a fancier coastal town, but it's still sleepy when I hop off the train. A bakery tries to charge me ten times the price for a pastry, and I laugh before asking them if it's packed with gold. They don't budge, and I walk out.

While it's tempting to walk east for a few miles on the coast for the shrine that's accessible only at low tide, I'm feeling lazy, even if people with bad spells on them can be cured there.

I'm already crisscrossing Casablanca to see the Hassan II Mosque rise out of the ocean, and it's the only mosque in Morocco that lets non-believers past its doors.

Not a screen cap from a Blizzard game trailer.

Capacity is 25,000 in the main prayer hall, and 80,000 outside. The roof retracts to let in the ocean air and sun, the tide flows through basins in the floor, and there's even a laser at the top that blazes a green path to Mecca.

The whole place looks like Act II of Diablo, and the design is intended to echo cathedrals and synagogues (with a mechitza that splits off two suspended chambers for 5000 female worshipers).

One of two floating chambers filled with women

Tours are offered in six languages, and there are only two Polish guys in the English tour, so I'm offered the option to join the French contingent. The trip has made me a lot more comfortable speaking French, though my listening is still better (cheers to you, Christine Ockrent on the Affaires étrangères podcast!). The guide is super friendly, and I didn't even mind his ribbing about me being Jackie Chan.

Somehow one of the French couples on my mosque tour in Casablanca end up checking into my AirBnB in Rabat, one of those magical coincidences of wandering.

So more French practice over mint tea, and I'm trying to explain counter-terrorism while the guy tells me about his company designing missiles.

And then I'm on my way to Marrakesh. The train configuration is different again, and I'm in a comfortable six-seater bunk like the compartments that take kids to Hogwarts.

I'm catching up on the latest season of Girls, chatting with David, and life is pretty swell.

The train rolls across green pastures with patches of ochre red soil, the Moroccan flag deconstructed across the landscape. Sheep flocks wander up to the train, and the scrubby hills are crowned in pink coral and prickly cactus groves. Closer to the little villages, the cactus grows in straight lines to mark off land.

I've had the cactus figs this week for a dirham, fresh bloody bulb deftly plucked out like an eyeball on a stick. Watery surge of vitamin C, and my mouth was full of seeds until I saw an open sewer. Another two hours to Marrakesh, though I'm ready to tuck into something right now. I should have snagged another warm pastry from the medina bakery, but I barely had time to dunk bread quarters in marmalade before Zakia told me, "Bon voyage et n'oubliez pas de commenter."

Sharing sweet little oranges with Moroccan dudes in my train car, they chat to me in French and ask me about Japan. "Je n'y suis jamais allé, en fait...", and they waggle eyebrows.

Little girl plays peekaboo with me and when she works up the courage to stay in our carriage, we roll an orange down the train corridor to each other, and she giggles each time it bounces.

The older guy asks me if I'm learning Arabic, and says that after four months in Morocco, I'll have mastered it. It is an easy language, after all, he says with a dismissive hand gesture. Boys run up to the train when it stops with armfuls of herbs.

Once in Marrakesh, I walked to the wrong Dar Sekkaya, swarmed by fawning boys with the same script as every child in Morocco: "This way is closed, I can take you to big square?" I ignore them like they're ghosts, losing most of them in a triple mule collision.

The hostel is barely a month old and after the usual mint tea chatter about how I look like Jackie Chan, I pick my way past motorbikes and Americans having transcendent experiences with the natives towards Jemaa al-Fnaa. The snake charmers are already set up and there are drum circles for everyone.

I sit down for another bowl of snails, though my virgin one was better, less grit and more flavor. Bouche amused, I find a table half covered in decapitated sheep, their brains glistening.

I squeeze between two men and ask for the same mixed bowl of lahem ras.

The usual round of bread picks up curds of brain, meaty cheek flesh, and the fatty gristle before I pop it all in my mouth in one offal bite.

A Canadian girl walks up and orders a lentil soup, I'm confused why she's at this stand.

Sheep's head stew: Best meal in Morocco
The book souk is quiet, and I pick out Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'enfant de sable. The bookseller says it'll be 20 million gold pieces, but he'll also take 20 dirhams.

I spider through the cold innards of the cafe terraces until I get to the tippy top. Coffee is cheap and strong as usual, and I start the book while the sun sets behind the pink minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque.

Riad Douzi Bik is full of people when I'm back, Australians, Germans, and a Scottish woman who never seems to leave the place. Cakes are griddled, and I keep warm with mint tea until bedtime.

I send off my postcards before hopping on the bus towards the coast. Essaouira is a hippie fishing village three hours west of Marrakech, the source of purple dye for Rome way back when, and recently Astapor on Game of Thrones.

I'm there to read on the beach, stuff myself with fried sardines, and see some voluminous haiks. Easy trio of quests.

Sea gulls dive bomb the port as the touts do the same to our bus.

Essaouira is a gorgeous little garrison, and for 30 dirhams, I get a platter of ten grilled sardines, a baguette, a salad, and a coke as one legged seagulls fight over fish heads a few feet in front of my table.

Dudes, this was $3.
A retired teacher from Hamburg shares my table and tells me that Essaouira is his favorite city, but that the Algerian desert from thirty years ago was prettier when the borders were still open.

It's only a matter of time before I get some seagull shit on me, but I read a bit atop the crenelated walls next to a cannon.

For 100 dirhams, I pick up seven thuya boxes with the gnarly gnarl, little gifts for people in my life. I stroll through the medina again, but then I see the ocean and just head south to the sand.

Two hours of sky meeting sea later, I'm sandy, happy, and ready to nap all the way back to Marrakesh.

In the morning, I pick up a kilo of bananas and some cake for the twelve hour bus crossing of the Atlas Mountains. I love how the horizon swings wildly as the bus switchbacks through villages. Stop lengths are never announced, and riders often have to run after the bus to stop it.

We can see the snow-capped mountains now, and I have to resist taking pictures with every snowy turn. It's funny to notice how the left-hand guard rail is completely shorn off in parts, the scarring of prior car wrecks still fresh on the grass.

I love the Moroccan practice of letting phones ring through the whole jingle so that other people can appreciate how important you are. Very classy, dude.

We finally find time to scarf down a tagine berbère during a half hour stop in the middle of nowhere. Kiwi and a girl from Montana chat with me until we all fall silent as stars blow up in the desert after we leave Errachidia.

The girls scurry off at the petrol station, and I get to Merzouga proper to be hustled into the back of a van with Hassan of the flowing blue robes. The sands are black and he's telling me that his village is named after the white water of the well at the center.

The place is palatial, kittens scurrying underfoot. The usual mint tea greeting with a German couple, who quickly offer me a ride to Fez after our dromedary ride to the Erg Chebbi dunes for sunset dinner and sleep under the stars.

I wake up to bread, olives, an egg, and the two Dutch girls wander in. After coffee and OJ, I walk the two hours out to Lake Merzouga, no birds, but it's a nice walk and I can't stop smiling.

My trusty steed
I love my Dali dromedary.
Riding a dromedary is much harder work than I expected. That one hump is not calibrated with men in mind, and the swaying strides mean every slope is an opportunity to topple and tumble.

Our Berber guide Mohammed is in his sixties, but he's scurrying up dunes for two hours, setting up camp, and making dinner. We chat a bit later, and he tells me about being married for the past fifty years since age twelve.

Mohammed keeps referring to the one girl in our platoon as Fatima, and we sort out that it's common to name your first girl Fatima, then Zahra, and then so on. No such naming conventions for boys, though I've met more Hassans this trip than anything else.

I don't know how that chicken got out to the middle of the Sahara.
The day-long drive back to Fez often made the three us of feel like we were in Utah. Rainbow rock formations, tunnels on the edges of cliffs, I could have sworn we saw some friendly Mormons by the blue lakes. 

We're stopped by Moroccan police four times, each time with dubious speed guns. The final stop is a trio training a newbie, so they throw the book at us.

I have a fever all Valentine's Day, and by the time I check into the hostel, I gopher into the covers and sleep for twelve hours.

One last visit to Fez's first shopping mall, where families are taking photos of everyone zooming down an escalator. But I'm there for the Carrefour, just for ANYTHING that isn't bread or tastes of ras el hanout.

And then I'm back in London, swaddled with dim sum, friends, and endless breakfast burritos.

Martin  offering the final wave of dim sum to be eaten
Vegan chilli, mm

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The saffron is good for the jiggy-jiggy, my friend.

Chefchaouen in the rain, probably my favorite picture of the trip.
The first thing I notice about Fez are the silent cats brushing by underfoot, a whole clowder of kittens tearing away at entrails from the butcher.

Touts are whispering "貧乏!" at me, probably the most articulate of the Asian greetings I got in the two weeks (binbou - 'poverty' in Japanese, presumably a shorthand for cheap).

I have about two weeks to make it to eight cities according to my plan, so the minor deities of bus and train better come through for me.

Landing in  my hostel
I stick to Talaa Kabira until the blue gate, thinking that the Fez medina is adorable for having two main streets: Big Climb and Little Climb. Overtaking two mules that look like movie props, I have a tagine in front of me a lot quicker than ideal, the ceramic is ice cold. 

One of the cuter cats and I tear at the stewed beef together, but then Mama Cat tries to jump in my lap.

The windows of the riad are so thin, you can hear everything on the street as you all lie under a jeweled panel ceiling. But then fjar, the first call of prayer, announces dawn is breaking, and birds start chattering and pooping by the window.

Ceiling above my bed
Breakfast view from the roof of the riad
The medina has a magic that ensures no one ever has to slow their walking to avoid collision. I watch a woman roll transparent dough over a massive dragon's egg; she's making fresh phyllo for briouat filled with honey syrup.

It's not hard to hand over a few cents for a few sticky triangles that go perfectly with a Moroccan espresso. Coffee machines are stashed in little nooks all over the medina, and one of them even makes avocado milkshakes.

One coffee guy hands me a knuckle of m'hanncha, an almond paste pastry curled into a snake. My fingers smell like orange flower and cinnamon for most of the day.

Two massive Swiss dudes and I have a baghrir eating contest (crumpet/pancake love child) on the roof before ignoring guides all the way until we're overlooking the tanneries.

Men are vigorously jumping into vats of colored water with armloads of animals skins, and it's all very purposeful, but I can't tell what's getting done. When the wind blows our way, it's the flat chemical smell of the skins, but nothing too bad. 

The Jewish mellah is somehow darker and narrower than even the medina, and the two synagogues are closed or just a museum now. I hear the first recounting of how the Jews just left for Israel and are simply no longer here. Nothing to do with the expelling, the burning, or the synagogue-destroying.

Peeking into the Jewish cemetery costs money, and when we decline, a woman asks, "No Jews?" We debated whether she was saying our decision was anti-Semitic, whether she was anti-Semitic and wanted compatriots, or whether she was just acknowledging our leaving. 

Moroccans speak at least three languages with various levels of skill, so we stop overanalyzing. In English, men end their sentences with "...., my friend." 

We walk by the Qarawiyyin Mosque, the oldest university in the world since its opening in year 859. Non-Muslims aren't allowed in, but I do get to gawk from the gateway at the shining marble.

جامعة القرويين‎
Everyone has a cousin who will prevent you from making the worst travel decision, someone who has a camel tour that if you're lucky, they might be able to sneak you into. I often feel like the frantic Ryanair sales team managed to set the tone in Morocco as well. 

A Canadian boy and I loop Hotel California while lying on pillow mounds in the courtyard, and then the Moroccans insist on 80s love ballads until I fall into bed again.

Bab Mansour el-Aleuj (Gate of the Victorious Renegade)
Meknes is a blur of gates, the ritual losing of all sense of direction in the medina, and then sticky hands from the honey-drizzled msemmen (paratha-crepes). The Aissaoua brotherhood was expelled from Meknes in the 16th century, but the cobra worshippers are still going into writhing trances for the tourists.

The monkeys wearing fez hats don't show up until five days later in Marrakesh. I learned today that they're wearing diapers not because the performers care about poop in the streets, but to hide the monkeys' constant erections.

A man on the sleepy return train wants to list for me things that Moroccans love; the list begins with fountains and ends with hashish and a belly laugh.

Even in Fez, I do start noticing the glazed paranoid look of hashish smokers, many of them tourists who have had it for the first time, packing nuggets of Ketama gold from the Rif Mountains.

I pick up my first of many kilos of tangerines, just so much fresher and juicier than any British citrus.

 And they make good gifts for bus and hostel friending.

Dar Jamaï Museum
At 10 pm, I'm knocking on an unmarked doorway in an alley, and a bearded man in a jellaba opens the door a crack, letting out swirls of steam. Five minutes later inside the hamam, I'm in my underwear, hauling two buckets, a bar of black soap, and an exfoliating glove into a tiled chamber covered in two inches of steaming water.

We all work together dumping endless buckets of water until vision is nil from the white steam, and then everyone is scrubbing everyone else's back. I'm given an acrobatic massage, and then I just lie down on the tiles for an hour watching clouds of steam float by.

I have to be out of the riad by 6 am to catch a bus to Chefchaouen in the mountains, but we're kept up until 2 am listening to what sounds like a woman being beaten. She's yelling hysterically, someone braver peeks out the door to investigate, and the noise cuts out. We convince ourselves it's just a movie as the gas can sputters heat into the room, and I fall into dreams about some giant made up of cages. 

Before I know it, I'm pushing onto a bus past the guys claiming to be guardians of the street, human obstacles on my way to Bab Boujeloud

The buses might be full of vomit (Moroccans seem to get carsick easily), but they're cheap, comfortable, and leave almost on time. 

The mountain roads are largely empty, goats scurrying off the road as the bus pumps out sugary pop tunes in Arabic. I'm reading a novel a day, switching out the books from hostel swap libraries. This is probably one of my favorite things about these places, how ratty paperbacks cycle from one traveler to the next.

Chefchaouen was part of Spain until 1956, so the locals speak more Spanish than French. The Irish woman who runs the hostel I'm at for the night growls directions at me that involve walking towards a pine tree and crossing the first bridge I see. While on this quest, I somehow run into the Swiss brothers I met in Fez, Manu and Fabi, as they take macros of cherry blossoms. 

We walk the rest of the way to the ruins of the Spanish mosque overlooking the mountain town, blue houses radiating across the white of the cloud banks. 

A Dutch girl named Lara and I wander the blue streets, and the scattered sunlight makes us feel like we're underwater. When it rains a bit, the homes seem to melt. 

I spend dinner wondering why people are insisting on eating fish in the mountains. Young bucks try to talk me into joining them on a hike into the mountains behind the domesticated waterfall to check out the marijuana fields and an actual cascade, but I've heard about locals getting antsy and stones being thrown.

Besides, the townsmen shadowing your steps and muttering about getting you some good stuff is enough to gross me out about drug tourism. Boys and girls alike are in tears as they sit on the wet steps from being violently stoned, and I just keep taking pictures of the blue stuff.

Maybe the place isn't blue because the Jews used to paint to keep away mosquitoes, but it's awfully calming.

Just one day in Chefchaouen was a good call, and I already have tickets for the bus bound for Rabat at 7 am the next day.