Saturday, December 29, 2012

from Traveler to Tourist

Many people have asked me why I chose the destinations for this trip. My answer has generally been something along the lines of, "I want to go to places off the beaten track, where (mostly American) people don't visit very often." This was quite true of much of Central Asia, and even so for China and Mongolia, although to a lesser extent. Morocco, however, is a different story.

First off, Morocco has been a tourist destination for at least a hundred years, I figure, with the French colonization and proximity to Europe. In Central Asia, people are still getting the hang of this "tourist exploitation" thing, but in Morocco they have it down pat. At every turn, in even the small towns, people are constantly trying to sell you knick-knacks, tours, or useless services (like pointing you in the direction of the tourist plaza you just ran away from).

It took some philosophical adjustment to get used to this new environment, but I figure that's part of the point of the whole "two regions" requirement of the fellowship, anyway: to throw you off balance a bit. In the end, I was able to treat it as a game, and a little holiday vacation from cold nights on the steppe and being labeled a spy at every turn...

But first, business

One of the main reasons I made this mid-way stop in Morocco was to get a visa for Cameroon. Turns out that's not as easy as it sounds. After a week of visiting and calling various embassies, I was left empty handed and with new plans to stop in Senegal next week to give that a try. I'll save that story for another time. On the plus side, I was staying with my Moroccan CouchSurfing host, Rachid, at the time, and between frustrating embassy encounters I was distracted by:

Hanging out with Rachid and his friend, Aga

Delicious tagines (and a lesson on how to cook them)
Dressing up in a djellaba for Friday mosque

Couscous (a tradition on Friday after mosque)

Getting lost in the Medinas
Exploring old Kasbahs

Visiting a Hammam/bathhouse (can you guess which side is men and which is women?)

Sharing some meals with Rachid's family (Dad, me, Brother Said and Mom)

And, of course, drinking lots and lots of sweet minty Moroccan tea (they call it "Berber whiskey")

Step Two: Explore Morocco

After the frustrating failure of my diplomacy, I was quickly distracted by a wonderful early Christmas present, the arrival of my girlfriend, Anna, for the holidays. I'll let her take it from here:

I (Anna) arrived at the airport with no less than 60 lbs of gear - 20 or so of it was actually mine. It wasn't a total burden though, I got to walk through the Paris airport carrying a motorcycle helmet and a techy-looking duffel bag. People either looked very confused or very impressed - either way it made me feel cool. The pilot on my flight from Paris to Casa even informed me, politely, that all I would need for the flight was a seatbelt - the helmet wasn't necessary, before exploding in laughter. The only thing that kept me from exiting customs in Casablanca wearing the helmet (to help Shawn find me, of course) was the larger urge to finish my 24 hours of traveling and give that man a hug (helmets get in the way of that).

Us and all of our Shawn's motorcycle crap. Fortuantely, we were able to leave half of this behind in Casablanca
I was insanely jealous that Shawn was already multiple days of eating delicious food ahead of me, so we immediately went out and "splurged" on a $15 dinner.
Shawn even dressed up! (Thanks Mom, from Shawn!)
Then, we actually splurged by renting a car (thanks Kevin and Arlene!) so we could escape the time-sucking nature of bus travel or hitching, but still have the freedom of stopping where we wanted. The picture below is of us right before we crossed the Tizi n' Test pass that crosses the High Atlas Mountains. It is a "yellow road" on our map, which apparently means that ALMOST two cars can fit on the road and there are lots of holes. Everywhere. Needless to say, travel is slow. And stressful, Shawn might say, when you have a passenger screaming every time you round a corner and have to slam on the brakes for the truck coming up the hill.

The Renault SYMBOL that carried us
We stopped in Taliouine,a little countryside town known for growing saffron (so I bought some) where I discovered that I do not, in fact, hate olives (so I bought some a lot, on several occasions). We began our week long road trip by going to the market, where there were oranges, onions, beans, cauliflower, etc. etc. (so we bought some). Shawn practiced his French (C'est combien? Q'uest-ce que c'est?") and made us dinner, while I fulfilled my role of lady on holiday by reading on my Kindle (imagine having the time to read!) and occasionally checking to see if the laundry Shawn had done was dry (it wasn't, ah well, better sit down...).

A traveler's washing machine...

After many failed attempts at this picture (in one, Shawn is still running toward the wall), we gave up and just stood really close to the camera...
We stayed a few nights, so we could spend the day trekking around the town. The town is surrounded by these amazing rock formations (and no trees, really). We hiked up and out of the town, through some smaller villages and back to the road, where we attempted to hitch back until our generous ride stopped and said, "Two minutes", then walked off. We walked back.

Taliouine is in the background.

A view of the hills surrounding Taliouine.

We continued on, staying in various cheap hotels that felt like dungeons and had gross bathrooms. We ended up pushing pretty hard to reach a town called Merzouga, which is on the edge of the Sahara, where we stayed at the best place in Morocco, Hotel Kasbah Panorama. It's situated on a hill, which gives a beautiful view of the dunes. We were there during the lull before the holidays (New Year's), so we were treated really well by the family who owned it. Hands down, the best food we've had here, no one tried to get us to buy useless crap, and it was peaceful. One of the owners, Ismael, showed us around a bit and talked with us about Berber culture a lot - education, history, etc.

This is Jovanna. She is cute. Her partner, Jovannie, followed us into the desert (brave cat!).

Ismael, whose family owns the hotel, took us to the souk (market) in Rissani and showed us where you can buy spices. There were so many types and they smelled so good, so I bought some a kilo of spices...oops.

Then we went into the desert on camels - ours were named Bob Marley (left) and Jimi Hendrix (right)!  This is the first time we learned that if you don't lead a camel, it goes where it wants...

This is me, fighting to keep my seat atop Bob Marley's back. (Look at how red that sand is!)

Saharan dunes, plus Youssef, our guide, who spent some of the walk talking on his cell phone.

Hiking the dunes for a sunset view.

Small Anna on a big Saharan dune at sunset.
Shawn playing on the dunes at sunrise. So early. So cold.
The nomadic Berber camp we slept in, while fennec foxes walked silently around our tents all night, taunting me (my biggest hope was to see one of these critters - no foxes, but lots of burrows and tracks).

The well - only 1 meter deep and - BOOM - cold, clear, fresh water.
 The night we stayed in the desert, our guides kept encouraging us to go for walks, see the stars, etc. We wondered where they had tied the camels...

The next morning, one of the guides approached Shawn and said, "Last night, the camels, they go....I do not know where", in a most dejected way. So there we were, on a camel trek into the Sahara, with no camels! I overheard the Portuguese couple asking him, in Spanish, "Escaparon? (they escaped?)" The guide replied..."Ehh......." In truth, I suppose it's hard for an animal to escape if you don't first tie them to something.

Never fear though, we're in Morocco - he maintained his dejected attitude, and offered to sell us some (fake? real?) fossils while we waited for the 4 x 4 to come rescue us. As they say, ain't no man sadder than a nomad without his camel - but $15 for a rock is still expensive.

Turns out that our camels had gone wandering in search of "greener pastures" - they had been found down by the river, where there are more plants. And so, we learned that Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix had, quite naturally, left the early-to-bed tourists in search of some grass...
He said, "8 x 8 in, now 4 x 4 out! Haha!"
We have eaten a lot of delicious little street-cart donuts, street meat-wiches, olives (Anna), and had liters and liters of mint tea, I'm sure. Now, we're kicking back and enjoying the last few days together with a newfound confidence to deal with the touts as they harrass us. We only buy things from people that barely talk to us, only enter shops where the person seems apathetic about whether we buy anything, and only stay at hotels if they don't barrage us with advertisements and attempts to draw us in. Take that, Morocco.

Some parting shots:

Hands down, the best tagine we had (at Kasbah Panorama, in Merzouga) - a mixture of chopped beef and vegetables, with eggs cracked on top. It is apparently a traditional Berber dish.

The quintessential Sahara/camel/sunset shot.
Thanks for taking a break from your travels to be a tourist on vacay with me :)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

One day in Istanbul

 After waking up early and eating my last plov (not pictured) of Central Asia, I hopped on a morning flight to Istanbul, where I had a long layover before my connecting flight to Casablanca. For only $20 and about 30 seconds of waiting, I was able to get a 90-day tourist visa with which to enjoy my 23hrs in the city.

First step: find my hostel. I made the mistake of not writing down an address, so this was harder than it sounds. Luckily it was in Sultanahmet, the main tourist district in the city, so after stumbling around in the airport looking for some direction (turns out "tourist information" stands aren't always that helpful...), I eventually found my way downtown on the super clean and efficient (by Soviet standards) public transport.

Second step: see some sights. It's my first time in Istanbul, so might as well go see the big postcard-worthy places, right? Along the way, I found that Turkey isn't actually all that different from Central Asia. Many of the Turkish words were the same as Kazakh/Uzbek/Kyrgyz/Uighur, some of the food was the same, old mosques were everywhere, and a surprising number of people thought that I was Turkish, too. Notably absent were statues of Lenin, Soviet apartment blocks, wide streets and sidewalks, and borsch.

Blue mosque from behind
Hagia Sophia

Basilica Cistern

 It's a beautiful city, and there were tons of cool sights to see. But, being me, I started to get bored with the touristy things and opted for my favorite pasttime in a new city: Eating everything I see that I haven't had before. First was a kebab/sandwich thing (not pictured), then a pita/pizza thing (also not pictured), then...

Bagel thing

Turkish Delight

Roasted Chestnuts

Fish sandwich...

...From those boats on the left


Turkish coffee

Then I went to see some more sights and digest...

Looked at the Asian side of the city (didn't go visit, though)

Ran into this Japanese dude AGAIN. First was in Khiva over a month ago, then in Aktau two weeks later, and here I almost literally ran into him on a random side street. He had just driven in. Small world.

Then I was jet-lagged, so I had another turkish coffee

And PLOV!! (they call it pilav... way less grease)

And some local beer and music (not pictured)

and street mussels with rice - seems like the equivalent of 50c wings in America

then a donor

And more beer

Then more baklava!

 Then I went back to my hostel, ran into another traveler I hadn't seen since Khiva and wasn't expecting to ever see again (also just showed up that night), talked to him way too late, got 4hrs of sleep and woke up the next morning to rush to the airport, but not before eating more...

potato pastry!

Goodbye Istanbul

And this is what Shawn looks like after two full days of travel across six timezones with a total of 7-8hrs of sleep in two nights

Then I got to Morocco. More to come on that later!