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Morocco Archives

We found this in a hardware store in Marrakech while we were looking for a juicer. I don't know what you would cleave with this thing. It was all one piece of metal, and looked more like something out of a low-budget Tolkein ripoff than a kitchen implement.

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UPDATE [July 15]: According to one of my friends on Facebook, this implement is used to cleave meat with bones. Given the weight, I can see that.

I recently received a request for a photograph of myself, and was left scratching my head. I actually do have an electronic album of my few decent photos, but that album is on a hard drive in storage somewhere in suburban New York. All I have with me are photos from this trip.

Instead of weeding through several thousand photographs looking for a presentable image, I decided to cheat by relying on Picasa's facial recognition technology. I left the program running overnight and returned the next morning, coffee in hand, to the somewhat tedious task of identifying four thousand or so faces that Picasa had picked out of our photos.

Most of these faces belonged to innocent bystanders, and could be set aside easily. There were a few photos of me, a few more of Pallavi, and several of friends and travel companions whom we've met along the road. In the end, I found a couple of pictures that didn't make me look like a deranged lunatic with a bad haircut. But Picasa also picked out the faces of two individuals who we'd photographed in several countries, and yet weren't friends or family.

It's not surprising that we have multiple pictures of President Obama, whether in a cafe in Ecuador;


or on a campaign poster in Peru.

But while the President may get a bit of exposure, he's a virtual nonentity in comparison to the man who has followed our footsteps on every continent, in virtually every country: Che Guevara. 

We spent the weeks since leaving Marrakech making our way through Morocco by train: Fez, then Meknes, then Rabat, then Casablanca. Much of what we'd heard of Casablanca from other travelers wasn't very positive, along the lines of "spend a day, at most." Yet I rather enjoyed Morocco's economic capital. Besides the quite magnificent modern cathedral that is the Hassan II Mosque (worthy of a post of its own), the city has a new world charm and character that made for a nice contrast after a month of tajines in various ancient medinas.

I owe part of my satisfaction with the city to the Hotel Amoud, which although at the top end of our budget, provided surprisingly good value for Morocco: the bed was comfortable, the bathrooms clean, and the location smack in the middle of the art deco district of Casablanca. While the Amoud itself is nothing special, it's neighborhood makes for some entertaining photography. I'm cursing the fact that I did my phototourism on an overcast day, when the light wasn't anywhere near ideal.

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We've encountered a fair bit of art deco on our trip thus far, though we've not blogged about much of it: a few spots in Banos, Ecuador, or the small town of Ranfurly in New Zealand. Of these, Casablanca has definitely been the most fun. 

Days in Art Deco

We didn't hit any of the bars or clubs after hours, but this is a well-known (if not exactly salubrious) nightlife area, not much frequented by tourists. Make sure to catch a cab home if you're going out.

We've been fairly happy with our OneWorld Explorer ticket, especially with its flexibility on date changes. When we purchased the ticket, I'd read horror stories, mostly involving lack of availability. Yet until now, every date change that we've made has gone off without a hitch: OneWorld had flights available either on the day we wanted, or within twenty-four hours. The process is pretty seamless: make a Skype call with LAN, change the flight, and receive a confirmatory email in a few days.

Last Friday, the process broke down badly.

On the Variety of Muggings

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During my first week at law school, I heard the story about a classmate who'd been mugged. I always think of this anecdote as The Most Polite Mugging Ever. The story went that he'd been out late and was walking home while talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. Two guys came up to him and showed him a gun. He handed over his wallet, but asked if he could have the student ID back. The muggers did even better than that: they emptied the wallet of cash and gave it back to him.

I later related this tale to a conservative judge who was a lifelong New Yorker, and he was disgusted by my label for it. "That's not a real mugging. That's more like an involuntary transfer of property. Like a tax on living in New York."

For my own part, I lived for almost six years in Manhattan without encountering any crime at all. Eventually I even stopped wearing my handbag slung crosswise (strap on the right shoulder, going diagonally across my body with the bag itself on my left hip) because it made me look like a paranoid tourist.

I have become similarly more self-assured in traveling. Though we purchased money-belts at Wal-Mart before we left -- the kind you wear under the waistband of your pants -- and I used mine initially in Quito, the lack of threats offered to us made me feel this was unnecessary. The bag I was using on this trip was a dark red canvas sack on a nylon strap, borrowed from a male friend of K's who had picked it up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and it did not at all suggest that it held anything of value whatsoever.

Last week, on what was to have been our last night in Marrakesh, the bag was stolen in what I consider The Least Useful Mugging Ever.

I mentioned before how much I loved our Marrakech apartment. It was really too much space for us, with three bedrooms surrounding a kitchen. But we got such a deal that it was irresistible, and the extra space did allow us to have a friend visit without feeling cramped.

I probably enjoyed the patio most. I tend to wake up a little earlier than Pallavi, so I could start my mornings with a cup of coffee out on the patio, checking my mail and getting a little bit of writing done. Coffee time ended once the sun had risen high enough to shine directly onto the table and, more importantly, my head. Two more months of this and I could have finished entire novels.

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Likewise, the combination of a simple kitchen and fresh, fragrant vegetables made for easy culinary experimentation. In truth, I know very little about cooking with spices. But Pallavi would come back from the market with a little bit of this and some of that, and one or the two of us would whip up lunch or dinner by spicing some meat or legume and heating it up in a huge wok. And given the quality of the ingredients, it was really hard to screw anything up too badly.

The fruit and the mint were best of all. Oranges the size of softballs made a mess of my hands when I tried to peel them, and I picked up the Moroccan habit of glazing them with a bit of cinnamon and sugar. One morning I broiled grapefruit in the toaster oven, covering the half-globes with the same cinnamon sugar mix, and the sweet/tart taste turned out surprisingly well.

Then there's the mint. Moroccan mint has more flavor than any I've tasted. Combine with juice from the tart, fragrant limes, and you have the makings of a wonderful mojito. And if you happen to be in the country for Cinco de Excuse To Drink Margaritas, they make this too.

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Our apartment's only downside: no freezer, and thus no ice

Here are a few photos of a Moroccan labor day demonstration that passed outside the window of our apartment. Despite the depressing rain, the crowd chanted boisterously. According to some of the local news, the normal May Day pro-labor messages were mixed with a chorus of protest against terrorist attacks.

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A few blocks away from the Bahia Palace lies the Mia�ra, or Jewish cemetery. As you wander in, a caretaker will offer to guide you, and a tip of about 10 dirham apiece (less than $2) is expected. We passed on the guide, which was probably a mistake, as he could have added some context. On the other hand, the cemetery offered plentiful opportunities for photographs.

Jewish Cemetery

We've just finished a stay of a little over a month in Marrakech. I am writing this on the morning of May 12, on a train rolling its gentle way north towards Fez. It's a seven hour journey that should provide some catch-up time for blogging for as long as the laptop's battery holds out.

Despite a few small problems here and there (more on which later), Marrakech has become one of my favorite cities on this trip. Our beloved apartment sat only a few minutes walk from Jamaa el-Fna, the boisterous central square that leads into the marketplace. Yet our street, Rue Fatime Zohra, was itself relatively wide, brightly lit, and not so close to Koutoubia Mosque to make sleeping through a call to prayer absolutely impossible.

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The front door of our apartment

Finding a grocery store was one of our first tasks upon arriving in Marrakech. Living in the center of fruit stalls, corner markets, and little shops selling eclectic hodge-podges of household goods, it might seem odd to seek out the local equivalent of a Kroger. Yet supermarkets have one thing that a souk does not: fixed prices. Shops in the medina expect haggling, and a quick exploratory jaunt to a grocery store serves to set baseline expectations for later negotiations.

(As an aside: I've heard various visitors discuss--okay, complain about--the "foreigner tax" that stall owners will apply when negotiating with an out-of-town customer. While getting a bit ripped off is annoying, I don't think that the description is entirely fair. The salesmen in the Marrakech medina tend to be in cutthroat competition with one another and have developed trading instincts to match. Were a local to show up without experience in bargaining or the ability to speak one of the local languages fluently, I'm sure that they'd also be "taxed." Similarly, I'd love to visit Marrakech with some of my relatives who have earned reputations as... well, let's say hard bargainers, although their counterparties might use more colorful terms.)

No two walks in the medina are alike. Some areas specialize in certain goods: there are alleyways full of goldsmiths, squares that sell the latest Converse or Nike sneakers (or knock-offs thereof), and passageways full of leather handbags stacked three men high. The pathway north from our apartment to the grocery store remained my favorite throughout our month in Marrakech, however. Reflecting its residential character, the path had less in the way of souvenir sellers and tour operators, and more butchers, fruit vendors, bakeries, spice merchants, tailors and dry cleaners. A few days before we left, I chronicled the walk in this photoset.

From Our Apartment to the Market

Much as I prefer this domesticity, the charms of the more tourist-driven Marrakechi markets are undeniable. In Chicago I learned that everything you ever wanted was bought, bartered or stolen in my lifetime, and it's easy to conclude that all of that has been sold in Marrakech at some time or another. 

The passages that lead off from the Jamaa el-Fna are as much linguistically as geographically confusing until you nail down a few terms. A medina is the old part of a Moroccan city, generally surround by a wall. A darb is a road or alleyway. A souk is the name for a market. But most of the alleyways, squares, roads or pathways that spring up in the marketplace tend to call themselves souks. Meanwhile, many mere darbs are full of enough commerce that you would think they were markets in their own right. And if you walk at a brisk pace, you can probably make your way through a majority of those terms in less time than it takes to define them.

We were lucky to have the luxury of time in Marrakech, because some of the most fun can be had setting aside the guidebook, wandering down an alleyway and intentionally getting oneself lost. The medina has an allergy to right angles, and once the high brick walls block your view of the sun and local landmarks, it is easy to wander westward for half an hour, firmly convinced that you are heading east. [1] Once, when I was trying to meet Pallavi and her friend on an afternoon, three Brits rolling suitcases asked me the quickest way to the Koutoubia Mosque, as they were trying to catch a plane back home and needed a taxi. Luckily I had my iPhone with me: the combination of a map and compass sent them on their way.  The medina is not the place to be if you actually need to get anywhere else in a hurry.

But it abounds in sights like this:

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A cobbler fixes my shoes... with fire

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Tourists "fish" for soda bottles in the Jamaa el-Fna. The prize for winning is a bottle of soda. I never saw anyone win.

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Food stalls

A word of warning about street food: while we never had any problem in restaurants, proprietors of market stalls will quite cheerfully set out unasked-for plates of bread, olives, and other seemingly complimentary snacks. They will later appear on the bill, especially if the proprietors do not think you ate enough.

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Dates, figs, and dried fruits on the left. Fresh orange juice on the right.

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The markets hold a few dangers and annoyances. Most of the traders are polite and professional, but I did have some worrying encounters. I don't know if it was because of my shaved head, but my journeys through the medina were punctuated by offers of hashish from shady men. A few others would call me "footballer." (Is there some shaved-headed football star in the spotlight at the moment?). Indeed, the touts seemed to enjoy giving nicknames to passers-by.

Likewise, I can see why women would be annoyed by the leering, hissing and "kiss kiss" noises from some of the men in the market. It's a constant, and something that young female visitors should be prepared for, because they're not likely to avoid it: these sounds follow in the wake of even accompanied women. What puzzled me was the sheer indiscriminacy of it. It's true that the average tourist dresses less modestly than many a Moroccan woman, and by the end of a month the sight of bare shoulders had become a bit shocking even for me. But what possesses a man to hiss lasciviously at a girl dressed perfectly appropriatedly in cargo pants and a bulky GAP top? Not that a woman dressed like that can't be pretty, but she's certainly not trying to be noticed.

Of course, sometimes men have the odd bad encounter as well. While I was looking for limes one day in the Jamaa el-Fna, an orange juice seller decided that it was critical for me to sample his wares. His cries of "Hey, friend!" turned to profanity after I had ignored his first few attempts to draw me over. I'd never before had a problem with ignoring a tout, nor did anyone else seem to understand why he was so upset. The date-seller next door, distressed by my reaction (and those of tourists around me) began loudly admonishing the orange juice vendor. Things only really ended when I went back to the distraught salesman and explained, in my broken French, that I was looking for citron verte, could see that he had only oranges and grapefruit, and didn't want to bother him with my poor language skills if I wasn't going to buy anything. Following my "apology," they guy's neck retreated two inches into his shoulder blades, and after he slunk back the date-seller really gave him an earful. A better linguist than I could probably have picked up some really choice Arabic words.

Unpleasant at the time, sure, but it's a story. Hang around these markets for a month, and you'll have plenty of them to tell.

Markets of Marrakech

[1] If desperate, an iPhone's local map can generally get you back to a landmark: Google really is that good. But it's cheating.

Following the welcome news (today must be a great day to be in New York), the U.S. State Department has issued an alert for Americans traveling until August 1, 2011... all over the world. While I suppose it's always useful to reiterate common sense advice (avoid demonstrations, especially if you don't know what they're about; pay attention to local news), this kind of generalized worry doesn't seem particularly helpful.

That said, the alert does link to the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), one of those amazingly useful government services probably known to too few people. Not only does the system email you the latest news and alerts for the country you're in (we avoided some massive Bangkok demonstrations after the service alerted us), but if something does happen, the U.S. embassy knows you're around. If you're leaving the United States any time soon, it's worth registering.

My family moved around a lot when I was young, so the concept of "home" is sort of hazy to me: wherever my stuff and my loved ones are at any given time, or have been for any period of time, qualifies. But if home is a variable, Alabama has always been a constant for me. It's the place where I "grew up."

I spent my high school years wandering around Huntsville, yearning to become an adult and get out into the great wide world. And small as I thought it was back then, Huntsville is where I gained skills and learned life lessons that helped me once I did leave. Beginning journalism consisted of editing interviews with local greasy-spoon legend Eunice or chatting with the political cartoonist from the Huntsville Times for the school magazine. Exploration meant hitching a ride with the older daughter of a family friend and making our way to far-off Vanderbilt, where we could catch a screening of Howards End and dream of exotic locales like London. My views on guns and gun control? They were largely influenced by the (now probably defunct) tradition in which some of the history teachers would bring in their extensive collection of historical firearms, which covered much of America's martial history.  As for character, well, the cast of characters made Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil look like Sense and Sensibility.

True, it wasn't all fantastic. My high school, a foxhole in the war on energy inefficiency, had no windows to stare out from during less than thrilling lectures. But I did learn to type on an IBM Selectric (which gave me some perspective a few years later), and today when I walked down into the souk and haggled with a cobbler who repaired my shoes with fire, I gave thanks for four years of French. There may be better places to become a young man, but allow me my doubts as to their existence.

Huntsville is hurting now, as is much of the rest of Alabama, after a series of tornadoes ripped through the state this week. We've been obsessively glancing through Facebook status updates and Twitter hashtags, learning what is still there and what has been lost. Every story is a little bit of horror, or a moment of relief when I learn that something I treasured remains unscathed.

If you have some to spare, a donation to the Red Cross or other charity working in the area would go a long way.

Our travel strategies have differed radically among countries. In Ecuador, Peru, England and most of southeast Asia, we hopped from hotel to hotel, never staying more than a week in any given place. In Argentina, Thailand and Morocco, on the other hand, we've rented apartments. (In New Zealand, we lived in the back of a van for a week.) There are advantages and drawbacks to both modes of travel, and a few things we've learned along the way that help with both.

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Another unanticipated advantage of apartments: sometimes you get unexpected co-tenants in the windowsills

If your camel is annoyed with you, it will let you know.

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For those concerned: we were not in the Jamaa el-Fna square when the explosion occurred, although I walked by there just last night with one of our friends. Current reports indicate that this was an accident involving a gas tank.

UPDATE: Our apartment is just outside the square. I'm kind of surprised that we didn't hear the explosions, although we heard the sirens afterwards. We actually learned about the accident when #Marrakech became a trending topic on Twitter.

[UPDATE 2, 4:20 pm: News sources are now reporting that this was a bomb attack, not an accident.]

Here's the scene as of an hour ago.

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As I'd mentioned, I was walking by the Argana last night with a friend. You can see a little bit of the building in the bottom left of the first picture, and its facade in the photo below that.

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With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.


Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like