a new adventure, a new continent (north) africa...
i have the pleasure of visiting a new continent last week (4 down, 3 to go). below are my experiences, ramblings and observations in pictures and words.
we've only just begun...
... And yet I am exhausted. Feeling every minute my 30 years I landed in
Casablanca today with my father and two sharpie inspired dark circles
under my eyes after what felt like a week of traveling.
For those who have played confidant to me in the past month or two,
you've likely felt my palpable stress level rising like the angry sea.
Being the difficult woman I am, I chose to plan an international voyage
for my father and myself on a particularly complicated week, both
personally and professionally, to really test the limits of my sanity.
And test it I did.
Missed train connections, mistaken terminals and misplaced planes
reservations (never, i repeat never book through a third party website - travelocity you know who you are)
all took their toll on my ever greying hairline, and all before we even took
After a layover in Madrid and nearly 15 hours en route, Pops an I hopped
in a cab under the clear bright African sun with an amiable driver who was
unfortunately (yeah, right) only able to communicate with me in Spanish.
It was in this French-infused Spanish that he warned us, repeatedly
that the low budget hotel I had reserved was dangerous. When I relayed
to my Dad that he had mentioned knife point and wished me luck while staring deeply into my eyes, Dad
decided to take nice guy cab driver's advice and once again
circumnavigate the smoggy streets of Casablanca, landing is at Hotel
Casablanca, a modest establishment housing and English speaking staff,
a young men's soccer team and shitty wifi.
We quickly brushed our teeth and dropped our bags before running out the
door of room 417 in our well worn clothes and 15 hour funk, wanting to make the most of our limited international engagement.
Meandering through the streets of Casablanca you cannot help but notice the unique mix of contemporary clothing with the antiquated fashions,
beautifully maintained mosques alongside war torn buildings. It's a city
as filled with contradiction as it is with old men sitting at sidewalk
cafes objectifying women in spandex (yeah, I mean me).
Unable to locate my trusty Lonely Planet before departing for a brand
new continent, we were on our own. And maintaining my standard of
minimal to no research on any given place before I visit we were at a
bit of a loss as to what sites to see, with the exception of my father wanting to see Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in the country, and seventh largest in the world.
With this in mind we set forth with wandering through alleyways and perusing local markets
and artisan shops while I was once again at a loss with my father's
behavior. Perhaps right at home in a city so filled with contradictions,
my esquired, PHd, philosopher father struggled to maintain an
acceptable level of common sense one needs when traveling abroad,
especially in a third world country. Open bags in crowded alleys, being
lured by persuasive street merchants and momentary loss of his passport
allowed me to not only revisit the topic of fallible parents but also
made it even more clear that I was in fact Rick Ross boss on this tour
of northern Africa. It's amazing a man so smart can be so clueless?
After trekking through what was most certainly the wrong side of the
tracks, we arrived at the mosque. An expansive square and detailed tile
work boarded by the Atlantic's waves gently lapping against the rocky
shore was impactful to say the least. With the sun low and warm in the
sky there was a moment, when sitting alone, I felt perfectly at peace
and perfectly aware that I was in Africa.
An overpriced Polaroid from a local vendor with questionable dental
habits and we were off for our first real sustenance of the day - an
early bird special of tagine poulet, kebabs and about 100 loves of
the traditional round bread customarily served here. Being a Californian and now a New York resident I have become
accustomed to the general loathing of cigarette smokers but they are a
dime a dozen here, and even better, free to smoke wherever they please.
Leaving something to be desired in dining establishments, it was back
to the hotel. Beep beep.
Only problem was, we didn't know exactly were that was. Like I said, the
streets of Casablanca wind around like a distended intestine and there
are no real lefts or rights, just a series obtuse angels winding the
streets lined with French bodegas and white apartment buildings that all look uncanninly similar.
About an hour later, and with the help of some very kind locals we arrived back at our home for the evening.
More tea to be had at a local cafe at which i was the sole female
patron, with more over-sized sugar cubes that seem to be standard in
these parts and it was off to bed after a very long day. The plan for
of all the towns in all the world...
Currently being lulled to sleep on the train from Casablanca to
Marrakech, I remain in awe of the Moroccan people's ability to layer. In
an attempt to be respectful of the culture in which I have placed myself
I have tried to cover up my goods, normally on display year round in an
assortment of spandex and mini skirts- but with my hair exposed
alongside my very apparent western complexion, I have opted for long
sleeves and pants that only reveal my blistered ankles which, in a
country this warm seems to make very little sense. Yet as I look around there are vests on top of tank tops on top of long sleeve shirts. Some items seem like Western fashions that could be located next to the food court at your local mall, but all with the modesty of a Muslim culture means an array of clothing articles are assembled to make one super-ensemble before walking out of your arched-doorway in the morning.
When I awoke this morning at Hotel Casablanca I was reminded that this
is the brightest country I have ever visited. Not hottest, necessarily - but
brightest in a retna singing kind of way. It's almost like the entire
city was built as a reflector for the powerful rays of sun, with the pale walls and low buildings for maximum exposure.
The hotel offered a breakfast of hard boiled eggs, bread and coffee with
a few Dirham extra for the fresh squeezed orange juice, which was well
worth the added expense. Then, it was off the the train station Gare
Being knowingly price-raped by the cab driver who only lowered his price as I
raised my eyebrow, we negotiated, although he still received nearly 5 times what the hotel had
assured us would be the cost. Not wishing to argue in my broken
Spanish-French-English dialect I let it slide and waded indoors to
purchase 2 train tickets for the next train to Marrakech.
A couple hours in I am seated here, flanked by women with their heads
covered in colorful fabric and babies in sweatsuits, craning my neck for
a view of the passing country side and as opposed to being in a state
of wonder at the landscape of a new country or of the children who are
some of the most gorgeous and well coiffed children I have had the
pleasure to meet, I sit here and wonder how these women in scarfs and
babies in Arabic Fubu knockoffs are not sweating their asses off? I
understand you acclimate to your environment, but come on. I'm in a
cotton shirt and cardigan and can barely keep my eyes open in the sealed
off sweat box known as a train car.
Only a couple hours to go to a new town and all I can say is being modest is overrated. But for anyone who knows me, or has even see me on the street in passing, this cannot be much of a surprise.
Marakech, as the tour books will tell you is a feast for the senses.
Having spent most of the day spending most of my money on jewelery, I
can attest to it being a city filled with aromatic spices and shiny
objects as far as the eye can see. That being said, the eye can only see
so far when the narrow alley ways undulate with the reckless abandon of
petulant youth and much like said youth refuse to be labeled, so
visitors are left using various piles of trash or feral cats as their
landmarks for a safe journey back to their abode.
When first arriving, my father and I discovered the real money maker in
Marrakech is showing someone simply how to locate a street and then
requesting an exorbitant rate for the temporary adult babysitting.
The riad dad and I selected from the trusty Lonely Planet (that I had searched my apartment for only to find already packed in my bag 2 days into the trip) at the train
station was a little out of my price range, but just what he had in mind as an
authentic experience with rounded doorways, an orange tree in the
courtyard and a rooftop terrace looking over the expanse of adobe.
After chatting with our Canadian ex-pat proprietor Mandy we made our way
into the streets. Wandering toward the main square, I picked up some
baubles as my dad became a made man with the Gotti inspired onyx ring I
purchased for him. I cannot wait to see my sister's reaction.
Passing the spice market I became aware that heaven smells like saffron and amber.
Merchants here are polite an often English speaking, unless they think
your Spanish. Boo yeah! I get to play the Espaniola yet again, making
this trip complete. And here I thought I'd miss Latin America.
After sampling some mint tea at one of the local rooftop cafes we waded back into the sea of people that fill Jemaa el-Fnaa seemingly at all hours,
in search of food, and food we found. Cous cous poulet and strawberry
juice had never been sweeter and the fact that I hadn't eaten since
morning was quickly forgotten as my belly grew full and my desire to
purchase more decorative items grew more insatiable.
A pushy carpet seller followed by a haggling jewelry merchant and I
became acutely aware that bargaining gets me off. So often intimidated
by the prospect of speaking up in those sorts of situations, I recently
had a breakthrough with a gypsy cab in New York and being imbedded in a
culture of negotiation, I was all about it. 2 sets of bracelets for 100
Dirham- take that old man!
Wandering through the food carts in the plaza was magical, and not just
because some cute boy young enough to be my son called me Maria AND
skinny- but because it was unlike any place I'd ever been before.
Appropriately souvenir-ed and stuffed with a variety of carbohydrates. We
headed back to Riad Hanan with a hand drawn map and my keen sense of
direction in hand.
It seems that I am a bit more street savvy and a bit more hard ass
than my former lawyer father, but even I fell prey to emotion when one
of the boys looking to make a buck swore at me, in English, for refusing
his offered services. I spun around to shout all of the Spanish swear
words my trusty Mexicans back in Sam Francisco had taught me all of
those years back- only to realize, getting in a yelling match on a
darkened alley with a strange Muslim man may not be the best call. Being
logical is just no fun, so it was back to meandering and back to my
pocketbook to offer up the last of my cash to a litany of youth willing to show me the way.
I minor incident involving me and 3 obnoxious 7 year-olds - yeah, I said
it- and we were back to our posh home for the evening. And back to
discover my father's cell phone has gone missing.
Having picked up his unintentionally discarded items at least a dozen
times in the past couple days I cannot say I am surprised- but I can
also say, with certainty that it blows.
Let's hope tomorrow involves no missing electronics and no alteractions with pre-teens.
Wish me luck!
I am pleased to confirm that my blonde sister from another mother, Sydney, was actually
mistaken when she assumed a few weeks back during a rare mani-pedi date
that I would not be attracted to Moroccan men. I have big news- I am.
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect but foreign men with dark skin
and questionable fashion sense does really seem to be my type- so I feel
right at home here.
This morning began bright and early with the birds chirping at the iron
wrought window after a morning rain. With muddy streets under foot I
channeled my 1993 self and sported the ever so stylish converse and
dress ensemble to rough the crowded city once again.
More perusing through the markets and befriending old merchants allowed
me to almost ignore the fact that some random use grabbed my ass. Almost. While passing me on one of the many crowded alleys that allow motor
vehicles, bicycles and donkeys alongside their pedestrians homeboy thought it would go unnoticed that he sampled a handful of ass. It slipped
my mind momentarily that a henna artist nearly accosted me with her
syringe full of natural pigment the night previously and being called crazy and yelled at
with English expletiveshad become a blur - but luckily the molester brought that all to the forefront. The irony of the fact
that my big and strong, yet continually oblivious father is here, at
least in part to protect me, is not lost on me and luckily I have plenty
of warrior princess hidden within me to navigate such situations. Don't
get me wrong, I know he would do absolutely anything for me- he would just have to notice first.
A large part of today was spent locating attractions and historical
sites that we discovered are either temporarily closed, or trapped somewhere in the
Bermuda triangle of Marrakech. More tagine was had at a dive along the
main road that evidently only served men, as they seem the only gender
allowed to go out and purchase food and drink in this country. The food
was delicious and just what we needed to forge ahead. A quick 10 Dirham
visit to the Palais Bahia allowed a reprieve from walking literally on
the sun to view some beautiful tile work in an otherwise modest palace.
Used to seeing stray dogs roaming the streets of the third world it
seems that cats are the chosen un-spayed or neutered animal of Morocco,
leaving adorable litters of kitties on every other street corner,
alternating with the sick and matted felines just looking for a little
avocado ice cream (oh yeah, they sell that here).
With a hit of culture pumping through our veins, we were in need of
another and chose to get that in the form of photograph. La Maison de
la Photographie is not only close to our riad, but a must see in any number of
guide books or resource material. On day two in Marrakech you'd think we could find our way
back in the general vicinity of our hotel, but no such. It was yet
another series of asking for directions at shops in a mix of French and
Spanish and young boys looking to 'guide' helpless tourists around
inserting themselves into our journey. The latter of which does not seem
to bother my father at all, but is just the right temperature to boil
my blood. If another pre-pubescent boy never comes up beside me and
forcefully offers his assistance in finding ' the place' it will be too
La Maison is a small museum with a roof top
terrace allowing it's patrons to sip Coca Cola Zero on warm
afternoon sun. The photographs were beautiful and of historical significance, with
portraits of slaves and crowded souks. The roof-top reprieve also provided me the perfect birds eye view of some
local bullies hanging outside of the school yard waiting to terrorize
little girls and boys. Shortly thereafter, these boys also asked me of I
was Pakastani, so they are clearly the sharpest knives in the drawer.
Back to the Riad Hanane for a costume change, as the wind began to pick
up and we were able to make it back to the main square just in time to
see the sun dip below the horizon, almost perfectly synced with the call
for prayer. For a moment, it was almost magical.
The labyrinth of food carts set up at night are a major tourist attraction,
with numbered carts featuring a variety of delicacies. I had promised
some pretty young things I would return the night before, but before entering the maze, Dad
stopped for snails and the plans flew out the window. Two sausage cous cous
plates were readily welcomed into empty bellies at Cart 32 and although
the meat source was not discernible, Dad ate it up. The smoke from the grill nearly blinded me but I quickly did
my best top gun impression an dined ala Tom cruise with aviators on at
the dinner table at night. I wear my sunglasses at night...
After an après dinner feast of dried apricots and fresh grapefruit juice
in honor of my big sis, we took one last loop around the square and
headed back home. With a 5 am call time tomorrow we both need our beauty
Next stop Fez. And I don't mean Wilmer Valderamma.
au revoir marrakech, hello fes...
An early morning call time was no problem, as the 5 am call to prayer
reminded both my father and myself that we had an early train to catch.
More local bread and tea for breakfast and we were off on our 7-hour
train ride to Fes, known for it's craftsmanship and working medina. A
tense conversation was had as the early morning sunrise kissed the
horizon in the still untarnished farmland and resulted in an hour or two
of silence, followed by an hour or four of slumber. I have made an art
out of sleeping on public transportation and my leopard print scarf has
served me well as a make shift blanket on many a journey.
Raindrops against the trains windowpane woke me somewhere around
Meknes, just as my father befriended a man on the train all to happy
to help, going so far as to arranging transportation to the riad he had
called beforehand to ensure a room was waiting for us.
Although I love my ten dollar hostel stays while traveling alone, once
entering this modest square structure it was like entering a tunisian
bath house from a 19th century painting, with mosaics and carved details at
every turn of the enormous housing facility. According to photos in the foyer
both the princess of Jordan and Bono have stayed here - so if its good enough for royalty - its good enough for me - oh yeah and that princess lady too.
Off into the medina we picked up a couple trinkets before stumbling upon
a makeshift guide who was all but to happy to escort us through the
famous tanneries. Wearing my knee high Peter Pan suede boots has never made me
feel more guilty than while walking through room after room of pelts
either waiting to be dyed, in the process of being dyed, or hanging out
to dry after henna or saffron had been applied. As we wound our way up
through the outdoor workspace we were greeted, and I use this term
loosely, by a barefoot woman who was likely 60, but looked closer to 500 years old whose sole responsibility was to take the piles of pigeon
excrement, add oil an mix... By hand. After photographing her work she
asked for a tip and as I obliged I almost certainly caught tb or gout or
shingles for all I know when our hands touches. Needless to say I couldn't wait to return to
soap and running water.
Our guide took us atop the vista above the tannery where it was clear the very poor
residents and their very ill pets resided amongst some ruins from
centuries past. After taking copious amounts of photos, we exited the
tannery having done the coolest thing we have done so far, - covered
in pigeon shit and goat's blood- can anyone say awesome?
More strolling and we made it back to our riad. I quickly washed up,
ready to wade out for some live music I had read about, but Dad wanted a Coca Cola Lite one of the salons in the riad first. It was here that we net 2 fellow
Americans and I perhaps met my soulmate. Always thinking my soulmate would look like more like Allen Iverson, imagine my surprise to find that it existed in the form of a white woman.
A lovely couple; the wife gregarious and unfiltered, recounting many
tales of having visited 97 countries and all 7 continents had me hook,
line and sinker. I was in love.
As the quick chat across tables turned into Psych 101 with Dr. Heard and
his trusty sidekick me and minutes quickly turned into hours, as the
staff at the road began to close up shop and turn off lights.
Older American couples are not generally who I meet when I travel, but always seem to cross paths with interesting people from various walks of
life. And as always, I am grateful.
here's looking at you, kid...
I wanted to stay on Fes for our final night but my dad wasn't on board,
so we decided to give the new town, or Ville Novelle a shot before
heading back to Casablanca to explore.
Back on C-town for 4 hours the beautiful countryside
rolled by as I had the kind of intense emotional conversation with my
father as I can only seem to have with him- and often times
unfortunately canny avoid with him. We used my trusty Lonely Planet to locate the kind of
cheap accommodation to which I have become accustomed. This also
resulted in me sleeping with my hoodie on - not allowing my silky
chestnut locks to be tainted by questionable be linens. But I
Morocco appears to operate on it's own time table, and with an arbitrary time
change that will reverse back when Ramadan begins. This has only
furthered my inability to totally get Justin Timberlake 'Nsync with
their time table and I slept an extra hour or two as my father enjoyed
the early morning courtyard in our palatial estate. This gave him time
to catch up with Jim and Sonya from the night before and me the time to
work on erasing some of these dark circles that are seem to have become my
permanent carry on baggage.
We grabbed some tea and set out in search of food from a town known for
it's unparalleled cuisine. Hiking through town with bags in tow we opted
for a dark and dingy spot off of the main strip that likely functioned
more as a front for Moroccan infidels more than a dining establishment
because the food was sub par, the food took close to an eternity despite
the fact that we were it's only patrons, and the soundtrack consisted of
a lone CD of Lionel Richie and Richard Marx that I am fairly certain has not
been played since I was rocking Bonnie bell lip gloss and wallpapering
my trapper keeper with Lisa Frank's latest adhesive designs.
Luckily I had picked up a cookie along the way. Having brought a brick
of macaroon filling that I quickly passed along to a half blind man in
the medina in Marrakech and seeing the delectable goodies at any number
of bakeries this past week I knew I had to try Moroccan macaroon. I
opted for the street vendor version and just as is true with love life -
the cheap and dirty always delivers the goods! Not much of a sweets
person, usually opting for my salt lick of choice - this cookie was in a word:
orgasmic. I should have asked him for the recipe...
Dad's only real POI (point of interest) has been Rick's - the fictional
watering hole Boggie ran in the film Casablanca, when not romancing
Ingrid Bergman in soft focus.
Although the film runs on repeat in their upstairs lounge this eatery
has not other definable features or kitsch that would imply its a
tourist trap, charging exorbitant prices for mediocre food, all in the
name of nostalgia. That being said, the restaurant is beautiful and
China well branded with their moniker. Wanting to steal the tiny labeled
salt and pepper shakers in tribute to my recently deceased grandfather,
the wait staff was too attentive and must have taken them away while my
eyes were fixated on the arrival of our chocolately dessert because,
alas, I went home empty handed.
The last night I lay restless in a bed on which a murder has most
definitely taken place and bed bugs took a number to crawl into my carry on, next to my snoring father and I am sad to leave.
It was planes trains and automobiles back to the Casablanca airport
where I waited in line to leave the country for what seemed like years.
It was this mounting impatience that made me maybe, accidentally body
check a couple of German tourists who pretended not to hear or understand
us when we said no cuts no butts no coconuts. There is something about
your parent encouraging you to take out physical violence on some
unsuspecting entitled eastern Europeans in a public space that makes it
seem almost valiant.
A quick encounter with a far too attractive Gambian passenger on the
flight to Madrid and here we are - listening o melancholy tunes, in part
to drown out the ever multiplying Muslim family next to me, and in part
to have a moment to reflect on my week in Morocco; my introduction to
the African continent and my 24th country. Every once in a while, not
often- but every so often you have to sit, if only momentarily and think
- life is good.
Also, don't cut in front of me at the end of a trip. I'll cut a bitch.