Archive for November, 2009

The Switch

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

The game for this post will be to decide which switch was most profound. In the past few days I have switched continents, hemispheres, time zones, cultures, qualities of life, those who I have surrounded myself with, haircuts, diets, and a few more things that I’ll let you pleasurably discover over the course of this post.

But first we have to get there!

How many people can honestly say that they have been on three different continents and in two separate hemispheres in a 24 hour period? I can confidently say that I might be the most bad ass jet setter of all time :) I got to the Marrakech airport 3 hours early like a good little international traveler and found myself waiting for a solid hour for Iberia (a Spanish Airline that I strongly suggest you never chose to fly with) to figure out how to set up their check in station. I was at the front of the line so I was not worried about getting on the plane in time. The manager began to sweat as the employees fumbled with boarding pass printers and weigh stations. He nervously checked his watch, there were a solid hundred behind me in line. Finally he seems to break under the pressure and pats me on the back, sending me over to an unidentified desk. I appreciated his touch.

The woman checking me in had a remarkably familiar electric orange scarf tucked into her suspiciously tightly zipped jacket. I failed to mention that I have (at my leisure and opportunity) somehow honed my observation skills to that of a first class spy. It seems that, in the lack of the rat race, I have amplified my attention to details like accents, dress, and ethnic facial recognition.

I hope whoever I end up marrying (in a million years) never reads this confession, but I notice everything. I have for a long time (truth be told) but now it is becoming scary. I notice when someone has taken something out of their pockets from the difference in how their pants fit. I notice when someone is lying, based on a bunch of things (that I won’t share). Most of all, I can look into someone’s eyes and realize if they believe the statement they just gave to me. I have found that people often say something and then in a split second give a look of “Did he buy it?” These are usually the people who don’t believe in themselves one bit.

What a judge? Right? Well, no one ever said I was right all the time……(did you buy it?)

Back to the woman in orange. She was not an employee of Iberia at all. She worked for Easy Jet (hence the scarf). Did I trust that she knew how to work with the Iberia system? Maybe all of the check in systems were standardised by airport. As I would learn in the next 24 hours, being an Easy Jet employee was a step in the right direction.

I passed though Moroccan customs and the security guard frisked me. He felt my crotch for longer than any other security guard (in any country) had ever done. I didn’t appreciate his touch!

My first flight was just an easy 2 hour one to Madrid. The first plane was smaller than the full sized, trans continental monsters that I would be taking from Madrid to Buenos Aires. It was stripped, I looked like an Easy Jet plane, but older. I thought “no big deal, the big new one will be the next one I get stuck on for 13 hours.” I had a 7 hour layover in the Madrid airport in which I spent some time talking to a South African who said that she rode with Iberia for 9 hours without a movie. She said that the only form of entertainment was the radio.

Keep in mind that this is now the standard for flights that are sub 3 hour ranges. Typically now, airlines don’t even offer peanuts (unless you are ready to pay) for these domestic length flights. But I was going to be stuck in this next bird for 13 hours. The best flight I ever had was Qantas from Sydney to Bangkok. It was the definition of a perfect flight. Keep me well entertained, fed, and distracted and I can sit in a chair for 80 hours.

The first flight yielded two (that I know of) occasions of a seat being sold to more than one person. The equation of two people and just one seat leads to two upset people (as you may have guessed). This was a bad omen indeed.

As I approached the terminal for the 13 hour flight, there were already 100 people forming a line over an hour before the plane was scheduled to board. I decided to get in line and happily saw the line push out another 300 behind me in the course of the next half hour. The time had come. The flight attendant made the announcement “now boarding” and the neatly formed line of 400 instantly dissolved into a gelatinous blob of frantic pushing. Something, unfortunately, broke.

Fingers crossed, I made my way down the gang way, but when I saw the plane, it looked old. It looked as though it was just some outdated, skinny, metal snake that belonged in a musty bowling alley. Come to think of it, it would have made an excellent bowling alley. But as far as planes go, now a days, I am looking for something puffy and bloated. Something with two stories of neatly formed windows on the side. Those are the types of planes that will ensure proper entertainment, food, and distraction.

As I boarded the plane, I made my way down earth tone rows of carpeted seats. There weren’t quite chickens in the overhead compartment, but it was definitely a depressing downgrade from Qantas’s flag ship. I quickly found that there were no screens in my seat back. There was only one 12 inch screen every 30 feet or so. This means that we are at the mercy of watching what the flight attendant pops in on their time.

Yuck. Suddenly my life doesn’t feet glamorous at all. But it gets worse. They announce that there will be two movies during the course of the flight. Thats right, 13 hours in the air and only 3 of them might provide sufficient distraction, if I can even see the screen from my spot on the plane. The movies to show, two that must have been designed to put one to sleep. The plane is 15 minutes to take off. I take it as a tip. Three people (that I know of) have been sold the same seat.

Over the course of the next 3 hours, the crew manage to get around to serving us a meal. This would be followed by 9 hours of them literally sitting in lawn chairs in the food area and waiting for people to come to them to request periodic refreshments. They literally sat in lawn chairs, like unemployed donkeys and waited.

On a plus, the passengers were a lively bunch (presumably the parents of the Spanish boys I met in Rome a few months back). They used the food area as a sort of lounge. I have never seen such social plane in my life.

The one upside to this plane was that the seats had serious side bolsters up at the head. When I bent the flaps inward to cradle my upright neck I found that my head could not move more than a few centimeters to either side without hitting the padded walls. This might seem claustrophobic to some of you, but it turns out that I slept for 6 hours.

It must have been the side bolsters. It was either that or that Iberia in their infinite wisdom have elected to slip a roofy in my food. Either way, I slept for 6 more hours than I ever have on a plane. Was this an adaptation to sleeping abroad for 10 months?

During the flight (when the two gloriously boring movies were not playing) the screens cycled through cheesy power-point slides that promoted how spectacular Iberia is. It was so Spanish of them. Always taking themselves so seriously, implying that they were a big deal, or somehow ahead of the curve. This attitude is evident in everything from the Spanish train system to their lack of enthusiasm to learn and speak a second language (I know what you are thinking. But when we aren’t the largest economy in the world, we too will learn a second language.)

But look! Mira! We can put a little icon of a plane ON TOP of a MAP that indicates where we are in the flight!!!!! That was impressive 15 years ago. How about a camera on the tail of the plane? Nope, thats worthless as your 15th pair of shoes.

Getting off the plain and into the customs line literally took an extra hour. Put it this way, My parents were scheduled to land 2 hours after me and they were through to the outside of the airport before me.

Did I mention that I was meeting them? Anticipating them, I wondered if I would notice any changes they had gone through. Looking for them at the head of the airport, my mom snuck through the crowd and popped out to give me a huge hug. He face flushed, sadly I noticed 10 more wrinkles than how I left her only ten months ago. It was evident that she took her mothers passing with heavy heart. I didn’t want to see this pain. It was like a president in their second term. The weight of the world had been firmly on her shoulders for about a year now. Bud, her husband had gained weight in the face, but didn’t seem to have aged a day. It looked like she was part of some movie magic or something out of a sitcom when they want to turn someone into a grandma.

I’m officially dead when she reads that last paragraph by the way :) But I was already killed by that pain she wore on her face just moments before. To be fair, it was the flush in her face and the night of lost sleep that gave her this affect. Now, spending time with her, she still has the same glow I remembered. My Mom, for all of you who have never met her, is a beautiful woman. How do you think I got so good looking?

Taking a cab to our hotel, we chatted like we were at home again. It wasn’t weird. It was much the same as walking down the streets of Sydney with Pat, or Bangkok with Ryan, or London with Christina.

We arrived at our hotel to an incompetent hostess. My Mother had spent weeks researching the perfect hotel to spend a week in Buenos Aires in. She decided to go with one that demanded Paypal as part of the reservation process. When going back and forth with an inconsistent and unresponsive staff for the weeks before, she asked me for advice. I replied with “find a different hotel.” It was the same as interviewing a prospective employee with a perfect resume, but then she shows up late and drunk to the interview. Find another.

We are now 6 days into our stay in Buenos Aires and the Paypal issue is not yet resolved. I’ll spare you the specifics. This was the first sign that I was in possession of a skill that I have been largely taking for granted. Early on, I found myself internally saying “But you’ve had 10 months to figure all of this out. It’s not obvious to everyone.” to about 20 decisions per day. Little dos and don’ts have been filling into my brain for the past 10 months now.

Also, for the most part, I’ve been traveling alone for the past 10 months, and those who I have traveled with are of the independent nature to the point that decisions are casually muttered in passing, only once, when it is relevant. For instance, my previous traveling partners would not speak of what we would eat for dinner until we were in front of a menu. My Mother (bless her beloved heart) somehow finds a way to discuss this type of detail during breakfast.

It was just a different style than I was used to and I think that considering I went from 10 months of limited long distance contact, to 24/7 we are doing pretty damn well as a cohesive unit (best run on sentence of the day). There were moments when I wanted to just tell them to sit back and let me make all of the decisions for the day because I knew all of the eventual outcomes of the proposed dialogues, but I thought it would appear brash. My patience for these day to day travel situations had evaporated to the same level that we all share for computers and the Internet at home.

I had just been doing it for too long to be at all confused. I landed in a huge city that I had never seen and I knew exactly what to do, but I had to slow down because my parents had a different style.

Let’s clarify, before going on any further. My Mom, bless her beloved heart, is a huge reason I am traveling today. It was her ambition that dragged me to 12 countries before I was even 18. She isn’t some honky. She’s ultra well read, educated, traveled, and cultured. And Bud the same, but to make things even more impressive, he rode a motor cycle through Europe with his buddy for 6 months when he was 22 years old. He gets the backpacker lifestyle. Hell, We’ve been trading stories of Europe for months now.

I had warned my Mother that I had changed forever a few months ago in an email. Jokingly after the first day together again, I asked her what she had noticed has changed. She said “Well, for one thing, I used to worry and watch over you, and now I find that as I have stopped worrying about you, you have started to worry about me. You seem to be looking over your shoulder every few moments to to see if I am alright.”

This is exactly right. My Mom inherited the worry bug from her late Mother (My favorite Grandma of all time), I also had this bug until about, well, 10 months ago. I haven’t had anything so colossally important in my reach to worry about since then. That is, of course, until my beloved Mother came to visit.

She took a spill a few years ago over a half step in the front walk way of the house that I grew up in. Since then, she was been more than cautious about unstable and less than flat surfaces. Her Mother, by the way, fell over that same step only a few years before her. I was the only to witness my Grandma fall. If you have never seen this yourself, believe me, its and experience you hope to miss. The front walk way is being resurfaced as I type this post (and I hope that half step burns in hell BTW).

By the way, Buenos Aires is full of two things: uneven tiled sidewalks, and drippy air conditioners. My Mom walks these streets like she is planning every step out, one at a time. And when it comes to crossing a street (often more torn up than the sidewalks) it’s like she is walking on ice. This freaks me out as one can imagine.

But it’s not all worries now that I am back on the company payroll. It’s restaurants and hotels for the next two weeks. And Buenos Aires is the perfect place for this to happen because the steak here is said to be some of the finest in the world. I am the first to say that the hype to true. The steaks are cut about twice as thick as at home and are wonderfully seasoned. I am being fattened up every day now with meals I won’t ever forget! Pretty soon I’ll look American :)

The people here are wonderfully seasoned as well. They usually speak Spanish slowly and clearly (unlike the Spanish spoken in Spain). As my Mom will attest, Buenos Aires is one of the more beautiful cities that either of us have been to. Unfortunately, the infrastructure is shot here with the poor sidewalks and inefficient air conditioners, but there are monuments that look like they belong in Europe. The air here is fresh (when there isn’t a car driving by). There don’t appear to be any emission’s standards here.

We are soon headed to Mendoza, but not before popping over to Uruguay (one hour away by boat)

Tune in for the second half of this article when I write it!

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The Dunes of Morocco

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

The Dunes of Morocco

I think it is safe to say that the dunes of Morocco are one of those things that don’t take much to understand.  What I mean by this is that you can say “Great Wall of China” or “Egyptian Pyramids” or “Mount Everest” or “Cage diving with Great White sharks” to your friends and they will be able to instantly picture it, and then imagine how cool the experience must have been.  Riding a camel across the Sahara desert, through 300 foot sand dunes, is easy to appreciate.  As with many of these experiences, there is much sacrifice required to get to the location.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be special.

Spoiler alert: This experience is easily HIGH up in the top ten things I’ve ever done.

But first there is a contrast to be drawn.  Though Morocco is great and interesting and beautiful, it’s also very taxing.  This country is filled with 95% amazing people and 5% swindlers.  Unfortunately, the bad 5% tend to swarm you like flies.  The difference between Morocco and Europe is that you can’t idle in Morocco.  You can’t just stroll without a purpose.  You have to have your guard up the whole time and you have to have a purpose at all times.

For instance, if you are walking to somewhere.  You must keep a brisk pace and firm direction.  If the bad 5% see you appearing to be lost, they will move in.  You can’t really just sit in a park or a square, they will move in.  And you can’t make yourself approachable.  If you follow these rules, then you will be fine.  But it isn’t always easy to do this.  For instance, when you get off of a bus, fully loaded with your backpack, and have no idea which way to go to get to a hostel.  The best solution that I found was to ask someone who is anchored for directions.  Someone who is currently holding a position at a retail store, or better yet, a security guard or police man.  If you ask one of the many men loitering on the corner, you will instantly acquire a personal guide.  This personal guide will take you directly to his friend’s place and demand money for his trouble.  It will go something like this “Do you know where crystal desert hostel is?” and he will say “Of course.  Let me walk you there.”  Then the man will walk you to his friend’s place (sometimes stopping at all his friend’s shops as well).  He pretty much then won’t leave you alone for your stay in that town.

The bus from Fez to Risanni (the gateway town to the Sahara Desert) is an overnight 10 hour ride.  The road is frequently under construction and the leg room is as little as I have seen since the Australian Gray Hound (bad).  After sleeping for just 20 minutes between 4:20 am and 4:40 am, I begin to see the twilight in the dessert.  We pass many small towns on the way to Resanni that have huge posters of a young man in a few cheesy poses.  It turns out that this is the King of Morocco and to be quite honest, he looked sinister.  I asked a few of the locals later what they thought of the king, and as usual in most places, received mixed reviews.

The CTM bus arrived in Risanni at 6:30 am and before I knew it, there was a man asking me to show him my baggage ticket (CTM is the premier bus service company in Morocco.  They take baggage very seriously.  In every stop there is a man employed by the company that won’t let anyone get to a bag stored in the under haul of the bus unless they have a corresponding ticket.  The bag man is careful to see that the bag sticker and the presented ticket align.  This is oddly enough the highest level of bag security that I have found in all my travels.)  I assumed that when the man asked for my ticket, that he was the bag man for CTM.  He did it in plain sight of the drivers, increasing his reputation.  Before I knew it, my bag was on top of an SUV and I was headed for the final 45 minute journey out to the dunes.

But wait a second, you’re dealing with a god damn 10 month veteran here, not some new bee.  My spidy senses started to go haywire even through the sleep deprivation.  The guard was back!  “Why aren’t the rest of the backpacker’s packs on the roof of this SUV? What is the price of the camel tour anyway?”  “The rest are coming. ”  “How many are there?”  “5 more.  And there are a many different prices for the camel.  Are you happy with this?”

Am I happy?  Since when has a person associated with a bus service EVER cared if I was happy?  I told the man to pull the bags down.  “It’s really early, we just want to find some breakfast and an Internet café to check in with our family.”  “Ok, I have a place for you to relax.  Follow me.  We don’t go anywhere until you are happy.”

I looked around and there was no one even up in the town.  Tata was the man’s name.  He quickly lead us away from the rest of the backpackers to his restaurant/hotel.  Remember what I said about personal guides?  Luckily I had my wits about me enough to not get into the car, but I failed in fending off the personal guide.

He poured some tea for us and drew out a few itineraries.  The most expensive was 1500 derahm (150 euros).  This was much more than we had heard it costs to go on this type of a trek.  I said “This is much more expensive than we were expecting.”  Tata was all smiles, but he brought a sense of urgency that quickly repealed his intended impression.  He as overweight, brown skinned, and had a buzzed head of hair (avoid him if you ever come here).  I felt cornered.  I didn’t even want to do business with this guy at all.  Then the two CTM bus drivers walked into the restaurant and had some tea.  (the place wasn’t open to the public and it was a fair bit of a walk away from the town center.  It was on the second floor as well.  The divers must have been in on it.  I didn’t want to bargain with him, because I didn’t trust him in the first place.  I just wanted to pop unto the Internet and check out what advice other travelers had given about this place.  But is was only 7am and the Internet café didn’t open for another 2 hours, so we grabbed our bags and decided to wait outside.  Tata stood in front of the door.  “Ok ok, I’ll give you the trip for 1000 derahm.”

“That wasn’t too hard.” I said to Erin as we walked down the street away from Tata’s place.  He wasn’t going to get our business on principal now.  I couldn’t trust him after his fishy move.  As we sat on the corner waiting for the Internet café to open, a few other men tried to sell the same sort of thing for 700. Many boys road their bikes by us in and beamed a beautifully honest and sincere “Bonjour!!!!” (this was the 95% that you want to see as much of as you can.)

9am hit and we made our way to the Internet café.  It was something out of a bad middle eastern joke.  Tons of computers sat on dirt floors and were connected to screens that didn’t match in color.  Probably An IT man’s worst nightmare, but the connection was faster than anywhere I had through the whole of Australia.  I scoured the Internet to find reviews and advice about Risanni and found surprisingly few things.  Advice about swindlers being present, but nothing specific and more importantly, no “trusted company”  I looked for something on Tata’s company (Chez M’Barek, Panorama Tours) and found nothing.  Instead I found a few independent websites that were tour companies of their own.  The prices started at 300 euro and ended at 3000.  I looked a little longer.

Finally I found something that said “trips should cost about 350 dirahm per night.”  and I even found a post on a travel blog with an email address and phone number of a “trusted” tour company. I looked at the number of posts that the author had made (like someone’s number of reviews on ebay) to try and validate the claim.  The poster had only made one other post.  It was likely that the poster was the owner of the tour company, but the Internet wasn’t saturated with these types of posts, so if it was the owner, he was probably more educated than most.  The English was perfect in the post.  I decided to give the phone number a call.  Within 20 minutes we were picked up by two young men in an SUV, but not before we saw the last of Tata.

As I stood outside of the bank waiting for Moha (the long shot from the travel blog) the flies began to swarm.  First it was 4 boys who stood around me in 10 foot proximity.  They were about 9 years old and trying to guess where I was from.  England? No.  Holland?  No. Australia?  No.  Canada?  No.  America?  No, China!  The boys laughed and pulled their eyes tight from the temples to simulate a slant in their eyes.  They said “NOOOOOOO!”  Joyously and I said back “You’re right, I’m from Japan!”  The boys stood by as Tata approached me.

He got really close to me and asked me if I was going on his tour.  I said no and he said I was a “Bad man.  A fake person.  A cheat.”  He said that he “gave me the information about his tours” and that I “owed” it to him to come back to him and tell him that I was going with someone else.  I apologized (only because I feared that I might be stabbed if I said what was on my mind.)

He stayed in my face and put the pressure on.  The boys turned into trinket salesmen and an old woman moved in and hovered at my waist line, begging for money.  The flies had found the shit.  It was all converging at once, and then Tata said “I’m going to go find her! She is the one that will decide.  You can not decide”  He went storming off looking for Erin.  Luckily she was upstairs in the Internet Café.  Luckily she didn’t have to witness this swarm.

Just as things got hot, an SUV pulled up with two young men and one said “Are you Alex?” and I said “Yes, what is your name?” “I am Moha.  You called me about 20 minutes ago.”  Great!  It was time to get the hell out of dodge.  “Ok, wait here, I am going to get my friend.”  “We can put your backpack in the back.”  I passed, considering the morning I had just had.

Moha said “Do you mind if we stop here in town to pick a few things up?”  We agreed.  Moha got out of the SUV and the driver, Ha-Med, sat in the driver’s seat with the windows down.  Just as I was filling Erin and the Ha-Med in about what a Fuck Tata ended up being, just like a cheesy horror movie, Tata had his final chance.

He approached the car and started yelling at Erin directly.  “You are rubbish lady!  I knew it all along!”  I looked at the driver, as if to summon his local authority to tell Tata to “Fuck the Fuck off.”, but Hamed didn’t seem concerned with Tata.  I took this as a good sign that Tata was all talk.  Still, I felt like a fish in a can.  I just wanted to get out of Ressani.  Moha got back from the market and we started down the road.  I felt relieved, but my trust was shot.

Moha looked back at us and began to tell us about his service.  He used all of the same vocabulary as Tata.  “You are Welcome.”  He said as he touched his heart.  (It is a truly elegant piece of the Moroccan culture to see someone touch their heart when they want to emphasize sincerity.) Unfortunately, people like Tata cheapen this gesture. “I make the good price.” Moha said. I look at Erin as the SUV speeds down the desolate road and wonder if Moha was completely full of shit and would turn on us just the same as Tata.  At this point, we had made our move.  It was all up to fate.

The asking price, by the way, was 550 dehram, a staggering 3rd the cost that Tata’s asking price.  This much, was already going in the right direction.  Moha’s hotel was made from mud and hay, but don’t let me scare you off, it was absolutely amazing.  It felt more like a relaxed house than a hotel.  And to be fair, it only had about 4 rooms.  It was more of a bed and breakfast.

Back at the house, Moha began to draw a stick figure map of the desert as he explained some possible itineraries.  I looked at Erin as if to collect my winnings from the bet that Moha would have the exact same itineraries as Tata, and the rest of the town for that matter.  I was right.  This whole desert thing was really suspicious.  I have found it quite common in third world nations for your neighbor to rip your idea off without even pretending to differentiate themselves.   I guess coming from America makes me hyper aware of capitalism.  Though, to be fair, in 9 times out of 10 in America the Unique Selling Point, is no more authentic than Tata’s heart pat when saying “You are welcome.”

The difference was the Moha was not pushy, at all.  He was also flexible about the experience.  “These are just suggestions.”  If you want a few more days, It’s just 300 Dehram per day.  I asked him who our guide will be and if he speaks English and he said “Gumby!”  and looked at a black man who was hanging out in the opposite corner of the room.  He looked over and said “Hey man! what’s up?” with almost no accent.  I was very pleased.  Things were looking up.

I was thrilled with the name of our guide and how relaxed he seemed.  The hotel faced the beginning of the dunes.  They were only a 15 minute walk away.  What an amazing location.  Gumby started giving us the low down on everything.  “We brought you here on 4 by 4 and now you will take 8 by 8.  You will be riding Jimmy Hendrix.  This is the name of the camel.  There are two camel.  Jimmy and Hendrix.”  Interesting to remember that Tata refered to the Camel that we would be on was also Jimmy Hendrix or Bob Marley.  To a degree, things would stay this peculiar the whole time.

Jimmy and Hendrix were loaded up with food and water and ready to be mounted.  Erin had warned me that you get on them when they are on the ground and then they stand up.  The process swings you forward and backward with more than enough force to throw you off if you weren’t prepared.  Thankfully, I was.  Erin road horses since she was a child.  I have a cowboy for a step father; that should do.

Jimmy and Hendrix are magnificently alien.  They seem to consist of neck, legs, and stomach.  I never knew how much noise camels make.  These two seem to have something barbaric to say every time you touched them, but as soon as they were walking, they seemed at home.  Gumby walked us down the dirt road with Hamed (the driver) towards the dunes.  I thought “That’s crazy.  A one to one ratio of tourist to guide.  That will never happen in the western world.”  the sun set quickly as we rocked back a forth in our saddles.

All at once, everything that I had ever passively learned about riding a camel came back.  “They aren’t like horses you know.  They are a lot wider and they take big awkward steps.  It isn’t a smooth ride at all.”  I instantly thought “and why the hell did I take the two night tour?”  I thought I would be dead in just 15 minutes at the rate of pain I was sustaining.  Just too wide.  Just too Jarring.  But the moment we entered the dunes, the ride got better.  Hendrix’s legs dug into the sand and the jerking and jarring were muffled.  By this time it was dark and the next hour of riding was made by star light.  You couldn’t really take your attention away from staying centered, because you would easily just slide off the side of Hendrix.  The saddle seemed loosely placed on him. Still the stars were in a panorama that could even be appreciated from a peripheral.  After about an hour we arrived to the camp site.

Gerard and his little brother were sitting there waiting for us.  It was very elaborate, yet nomadic at the same time.  Gerard, the cook, has the most honest face in the whole of Morocco.  His smile lines wear deep.  Upon first meeting him, he says that he only speaks a little English.  He would be the leader and champion of conversation for the rest of the trip.  Turns out, he spoke English, along with 9 other languages, very well.  Spanish, German, English, Dutch, Berber, Arabic, Basque, French, Italian, and Japanese.  This guy set a record in my book.  But he didn’t like school, because the teachers would hit him if he got a word wrong.  So he learned everything from interaction.  He told us that we would be learning some Berber while out here in the dunes, but the first thing we had to do was get proper names.  I was from now on, Mohamed and Erin was Fatima.

A few fun facts:  Mohamed is as important to the Arab and Islamic world as Jesus is to the western world.  Fatima is the name of his daughter (slightly different direction than Jesus ended up going.)  And in case you haven’t noticed yet, almost everyone is some version of Mohamed.  The two young men who picked us up in Ressani, were Moha and Hamed.  As a matter of fact, Gumby’s real name is Mohamed, but he has been going by Gumby now forever because he was sick of having the same name as everyone.  And it’s not just a joke.  EVERYONE refers to him as Gumby, even when speaking in Berber.

Gerard peels and chops vegetables with the help of Gumby as we all chat in the same communal tent.  They pile the veges in a tepee, sprinkle some magic seasoning on top, and then cover it with a tajine (like a metal cone shell).  After 40 minutes of steaming a beautiful meal is borne.  We eat the meal with our hands in true Berber style, pinching bits of the food up with pieces of Moroccan bread (think if French bread came in a 2 inch thick Frisbee form).  We share this meal, 4 nomads and us two tourists over Berber tea (the sweet mint tea that we had at the rug shop in Fez).  Jimmy and Hendrix burping and farting behind the tent.

Promptly after, the boys play some music with a local drum and some metal instruments.  Quickly after they finish, we hear drum beats in the distance.  It appears that we are not alone.  Just over the next dune, about a football field away, are other campers.  I think back to the similarities in Itineraries, Camel names and now after dinner ritual and wonder who the glue is in this.  10,000 miles from home, in the most desolate desert known to man, my capitalistic mind is still hard at work.

The chemistry between Gumby and Gerard is insane.  They make such sharp jokes at and with each other that they often have to run out of the tent and into the dark dunes in order to let their lungs have a chance.  Sure they were smoking Hash, but that is all part of the Berber experience.  Gerard is always ready to laugh and it isn’t long until we give him a reason to laugh for the rest of the trip.

I take a moment to stop and think that we are getting the experience of an incredible group of nomadic people and their camels, and a few dozen 300 foot sand dunes all to ourselves for just under $40 per day.  This tops getting to play on the Great Wall of China for only a few Bucks.

The next morning, I wore a pair of Erin’s pink cotton, baggy yoga pants to prevent the chaffing I received from Hendrix and my jeans to proliferate.  As I emerge from my tent, Erin says “Presenting…… Fatima!!!!” and the boys have a huge laugh.  Gerard runs up behind me and fits me with two mini tajines under my shirt to make me look like I have the worlds sharpest nipples.  Gumby ties a string just below to accentuate the ensemble.  The deem me Aisha (yes, like the song found on youtube) and maintain this name for the rest of the trip.  Gumby presents me with a ring and I am his wife for the remainder of the trip.  This sends Gerard into a perpetual state of laughter.  Jokes of every possible iteration and carnation are explored.  I divorce and remarry several times and hundreds of camels are moved in dowry form in the process.

This is about the time where you might be thinking, I’ve read 3717 words and I still haven’t had a proper description of the dunes.  This is also were the story gains it’s balance.  This is where the sun rises and we get our first glimpse of the dunes from up close.  Remember that we entered by night.

When the sun rose the next morning, we were situated in a sea of purity.  The sand didn’t have any of the dust or dirt that you will find at most beaches.  All of the world’s problems had been dropped from this sea in the journey.  Down to an elemental level, this sand was different.  Strong and tightly packed at points and ever eager to swallow you whole in others.  A mystery.  We might as well have been on mars.  It was so different.  The color that the winter sun brought was anything as drastic as deep red to as drab as bleached white.  You’ll see.  The pictures are amazing.

It turns out there were other tour companies just a few dunes away and that there was a small crowd forming on the local large dune.  But even then, there were well less than 40 people there in total.  We climbed a smaller dune to have the experience to ourselves and enjoyed the sunrise long after the rest of the tour groups stuck to their tight itineraries of “back on the Camel by 8am”.  This is where our guides were different.  They just let us move at our pace.  It was just the two of us, no one else to keep happy, so why not?  Strings of 8 tourists on camel back made their exit while we enjoyed a lazy brunch.

It finally occurred to me.  This was the first place that I could actually loiter since I arrived in Morocco.  It was my first vacation within a vacation.  All the people we were with actually embraced a Jamaican like attitude and it was just what we needed.  The original proposed itinerary was crowded with line item-able activities, but that was for the weekend warriors.  That was for the type of people who don’t see any reason to go to the Colosseum more than once.  Well, if it was great, do it again.  The proposed plan was to make our way to the Algerian border and check out the black desert.  Once we got there we would watch some nomadic people make couscous and sleep in their camp.  “Fuck that” I thought.  The dunes are the reason I am in Africa.  I could sit out here and ponder for days.  And why would I want to hang out with a bunch of strangers.  I want to have as much fun as I did the night before.  I know freedom when I see it, and the black desert was not it.

We told Gumby our idea and he agreed.  We spent the whole day in the dunes.  We took our time.  We loved it.

We stoped at a different nomadic tribe to have some lunch and the flies were all over me.  I couldn’t understand how, but they seemed to ignore Gumby and Erin. They even ignored the food.  It turns out that the flies of the Sahara are really only interested in Jimmy and Hendrix.  The problem was that Hendrix wiped his face on my back during the ride, thus sending the flies into a blood lust.  Erin said that I should rub an orange peel on my skin so that the oils would throw them off the scent.  After the meal, I tried it and it oddly enough worked like a charm.

After bonding with Jimmy for the whole day (I swapped Hendrix for with Erin, because I couldn’t handle how bad ass he was) I couldn’t help but feel like we were not all that different after all.  He was just a louder version on me.  In fact, now that I have been exposed to his ultra loud burping and farting, I think Ill remember him every time I am visited by the gas.

Jimmy always ate the bits of grass found in the dunes and Hendrix always pooped.  I couldn’t figure out how they swapped the food without us seeing.  On the last ride of the day, Hendrix didn’t want to get fitted with the piece that sits in his jaw.  He screamed and waived his head violently while Gumby just sat patiently waiting.  He never hit the camel for it was “His heart” and his lively hood.  The massive head hurled back and forth and as Gumby stared with concentration.  In a flash, like a ninja, Gumby caught Hendrix by the hair on his chin, a paralyzing hold.  But Gumby never forced Jimmy or Hendrix into anything and he let them eat all the grass they pleased.  He even had us walk for a portion because the dunes were too steep for the camels and he didn’t want them to struggle too much.

After a stellar time, we came back to the hotel made of mud to create this post.

This particular experience was sponsored by Cary Johnson and I’d like to thank him for his wonderful generosity.  This is Cary’s second experiential sponsorship (you might remember reading about his first in the caves of Turkey).  Cary is the Vice President of eVisibility, the Internet Marketing Agency that I used to work at.  He is known as the Candy Man in the office, because he is always coming back from lunch with treats for everyone.  I’d like to share a story now about Cary’s character.

One day I was having a bad day and I brought it to the office.  When I was leaving a meeting, Cary asked me for a favor (something small, like to print something out) and I basically shrugged him off.  A few minutes later he came into my office and said the following:

“What you did out there hurt.  I come into the office every day and only treat you one way.  Like a god. All I do is brag about you and back you on every decision.  You’ve got to give me some of that back.”

I apologised and he left the room, but then it really hit me.  It was true.  He was right.  All he ever did to anyone in the office was breed a positive vibe.  He backed us all and that is so rare.  He was in the position of power where he didn’t need to treat us like equals, but he chose to.

Now, even when I am no longer under an employment agreement, he still looks out for me.

Cary is actually a new father as of the end of October!  He and his beautiful wife Brook just had their first child Olivia!  Thinking of how well Cary treated me and everyone else at eVisibility, I know that his daughter is bound to be spoiled to pieces with love and support.  This makes me happy.  REAL HAPPY.

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FEZ

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Fez

Getting here from Chef was a 4 hour bus ride through the most vast and expansive range of dirt hills that I have ever seen.  A barren wasteland of infinitely fertile land with farmers too poor to plant the seeds to feed a starving world.  All the while, American farmers sell corn to the bio-desile firms instead of exporting out growing power to hungry mouthes.  The remainder of the American corn and wheat surplus has been converted to soy years ago, due to the higher price it tends to fetch.  Africa is such a heart break.  But maybe I am all wrong.  Maybe the seeds have been planted and the farmers are just waiting for their yearly rain!  The soil looks turned…..

Fez is a very metropolitan city compared with Chef.  It is home to the largest Madena in the world.  A madena is a walled city, also known as an old city that resides within a newer city.  Think Indiana Jones part one.  This place seems like it is strait out of a movie.  A labyrinth to end all labyrinths, complete with camel head studed butcher shops, leather dieing factories, mosques, the Arab world’s oldest college (founded in 500AD), and donkeys carrying oversized propane tanks through dimly lit alley ways.

This all belongs in a movie. Being as the half mile medina in chef was enough of maze, we consented to a guide to lead us through the 5 mile leviathan.  Rasheed is a 60 year old man who speaks 8 languages and has been leading guided tours through the medina since he was 20.  Thankfully he was our guide today.  He was soft spoken and charming.  He taught French and Arabic at Cal State Fullerton for two years and has family and friends from all over the states.  With lightly Jewish accents, his cleanly shaven face smells of old spice. I quickly ponder if he wore this fragrance to make the westerners feel comfort, or if he had an authentic affinity for classic American fragrances.

Morocco is one of those places where you can physically feel two oceans of culture mix and swirl in a wonderfully diverse cocktail and Rasheed is the literal personification of this.  He speaks to us with the highest level of silky charm, almost too quiet to hear over the sound of the bustling world to his back.  All the while stopping kids in the back alleys and kissing their cheeks and waiving hello to their mothers.  He shakes hands with many of the shop owners, yet have visible rivals as some of the people  trade loud comments with him in Arabic.  One man tries to walk his overloaded donkey down an extra crowded and narrow alley and Rasheed raises his tone to an unsettling level.  Only a moment later, he looks back at us and gives us some tid bits about the next shop without acknowledging his previous quarrel.

This is the blend of cultures at a thousand miles per hour.  It’s not that he is two faced, he is just able to fully communicate with everyone and anyone.  He is the most culturally aware person I have met in my 10 months and my entire life for that matter.  He spends the day taking us to many places that we never would have found by ourselves.  Places that we never would have had the guts to walk into even if there was a lighted sign that said “welcome”.

The sidewalks ran a deep blue was we stormed alleys of clothing dyers.  Rasheed pats a few of the workers on the back; the luxuries of a 40 year veteran.  He says “did you notice that I haven’t paid for any of the goods I have purchased today (as he carries a few wheels of goat cheese and a few other items)?  I know everyone so well here that they trust me.  They tell me to pay them whenever.  Tomorrow, next week, even next month.  They know I’m not going anywhere.”  He literally grew up in this 5 mile stretch and is now a local icon.  His price for the day (by the way) was 7 euros per person (Erin and Me only).  A boy kicks a piece of trash recklessly in front of us and Rasheed smacks him on the top of the head, just harder than friendly.  His calm waters run deep.

We go to a outdoor factory used to stain leather.  The process takes just over a week where the animal hide first sits in a pit of lime to take all of the color out of it and then in a pit of pidgin poop (acidic) to strip all the hair off of the hides.  Then, the hide sits in one of 5 colored dye pits made from minerals or plants including: saffron root (yellow),  mascara mineral (black), and berry (red).  After this the hides are left on a hay covered rooftops for the sun to bake into submission.  Then the colors are locked in.  Forever.  The entire outdoor factory, every step of the process, lay beneath us, as we watch from a third story shop.  Onward is a view of Fez as a whole, a ton of simple high rise mud buildings with tiny square windows and a sea of satellite dishes that religiously point to the southern sky, instead, contradicting their master’s bowing east towards Mecca.  You have to love this place.  You just don’t have a choice.

We move on to get lunch and Rasheed takes us to a tourist trap where they cover the table with 30 small dishes full of starters.  Something clicks as not right when the waiters all wear cheezy hats, and there are nothing but old white people in the place.  I ask our waiter how much this lunch will cost per person and he replies with a cheerful “20 euros”.  I stand up and walk over to Rasheed and demand a different location.  He takes us to somewhere with a set menu of 10 euros.  I look at Erin and say “Hey, we asked for a tour.  Would you expect anything less?”  It’s ok to get Raped once in a while right?

But lets talk about freedom.  Religious freedom to be exact.  Fez is know to be the capital of artistry and culture in Morocco.  They have many religions practicing openly within the tightly confined spaces of the median, but the most interesting pair is Islam and Judaism.  In some of the neighboring countries , not so far from here when you look at a map, are countries who share hatred for each other’s dominant religion that leave an acrid burn in my mouth.   Yet this place, not so far from those extremists, lives in a harmony.  It’s far more impressive to see an African nation living in religious harmony than a western nation.  You have to love this place.  You just don’t have a choice.

We finally go to a rug factory where we sip on local tea as we hear the pitch.  First the tea, a green and mint mix; it tastes like a hot liquid cup of chewing gum.  I look at Erin and say “Best tea I’ve ever had !”  She smiles with a face that can only say “ditto”.  Now onto the carpets, starting at 100 euros, I think to myself, “Why would anyone pay so much for something that they step on?  It’s a rug!  I don’t care if it took 3 months to make by hand or if a machine popped it out in 30 seconds.  It’s shit, I step on shit.”  I realize hand crafted rugs are the third best useless and money making invention behind the notion of charging $5 for a 50 cent cup of coffee and charging $1 for a small bottle of something that flows out of your tap for less than a penny per 10 gallons (water).  Doe’s anyone remember oxygen bars?  Or corrugated steel roof tops?  If I’m going to pay 100 euros for a rug, it had better be saturated with 150 euros worth of cocaine!  But the tea made the presentation worth it.

After a long day of Berber-ism, we went back to the hostel, to which I write this post.  I sit in my all male dorm alone, because it is the low season and we are in a nation dominated by Islamic values.  Erin sets in an all female dorm alone, because it is the low season and we are in a nation dominated by Islamic values.  I am not allowed to visit her dorm, but she is allowed to visit mine (I feel like I am back in camp, or 2nd grade).  I am actually, believe it or not, not allowed to know where her dorm is located on the property.  I think I received the shock I was looking for.  Boom!!!! Morocco!!!!!  My traveling spirit is revitalized in a few short days away from the ordinary.

……….”He’s Back!!!!!!!”………………….

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Chef Chaouen

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

 

The morning streets of the Medina reek of Cilantro.  The city sleeps well past 9:30.  It is much colder in the shadows than I ever thought Africa could get, but the sun breaths a warm breath over half of the city.  The people here are more or less disinterested in anything more than a brief stare when we walk by.  Many young men try and sell us Hash, a premium version of marijuana, but when we reply with “we don’t smoke” they seem to understand and accept by leaving us alone. 

Supposedly this is a world renowned city for it’s hash.  For this reason, we are accompanied with only hippies at our hostel (my least favorite group of travelers).  You know the kind that wear tank tops to a country that is predominately Muslim.  Which just furthers the case that the trend of being culturally informed runs only as deep as is fun.  It’s fun to get dread locks, wear baggy pants, and smoke hash, but  not fun to cover up your top in 100 degree heat, so we will kindly skip that part of the culture. 

Meanwhile, we were sitting on a large rock halfway up a hillside overlooking the Medina and a local man comes down the path.  He fervently spits at us from point blank range.  Shocked, I let him pass, as some of his filth showers my wrist.  I look at Erin, completely covered from head to toe with clothing, specifically to avoid this very situation, to see if she is covered with his insulting putrescence.  Apparently the man had about as much spitting power as I do, because she was dry. 

As he progressed down the path, three other tourists made their way up, a guy and two girls who were showing considerably more skin than Erin.  This was going to be interesting.  The man stomps a huge half circle to get around the threesome.  In observing his motor skills, I deduce that he is most likely a junkie. 

I’ve been spat on before, but not once more than I’ve spat myself.  Yes, that does mean that if someone spits on me, they have always got it back.  But this was Islamic Africa, and I was more than a little afraid of being stoned in the streets for “speaking ill of Allah”.(so says the local covered in retaliatory filth)  

I was considering my options.  I could try and fight the guy, but I thought it much more easy to toss him off the cliff (we were on a cliff).  Good thing all of those thoughts came after the guy was gone.  Good thing I was just shocked.  Good thing a nominal amount got on me and none on Erin.  I hate cliff tossings.

As if the balance were watching over us, within a few minutes, my impression of Moroccans was tipped back with a man who was very warm and welcoming.  He approached us when we got to the top of the hill with warmth.  “You are American?  Welcome! Welcome to my city! Welcome to Morocco!  I very much like your people! A few of them teach at the our local school.  I am going back to my village.  Would you like to come back and smoke hash with me?”  In a soft voice.  Well, it IS Africa and you Do have to always be selling to survive :) 

The primary language that is spoken here is Arabic, but if you know French, you can get by just fine.  And if you are trying to buy something, you can speak just about anything and the seller will know enough of your language to barter with you!  Moroccans are well known for sneaking up behind you to listen to which language you are speaking and then pop out with that same language to try and sell you something. 

When we first got off the bus, loaded with our backpacks, we were sitting ducks for people who wanted to sell us things.  One guy just wanted to help us find a hostel (and sell us hash every few minutes).  He walked us strait to a good hostel and then asked for some money for his trouble.  Considering how impossible it would have been to find without his help, we were happy to pay the price of half a euro. 

We were tired from all the travel (a 1.5 hour ferry across the tip of Spain to the Tip of Africa and then a 5 hour bus ride to a nicer town than just a border town), but it was time to find some food.  We went to a restaurant that had chickens roasting in the window and had a local dish.  It was a bowl of rice, chicken, vegetables, green olives, and a prune, oh and French fries.  It was amazing to see how reckless they were with their ingredients.  After we went to a bakery that also doubled as a juice bar.  For 1 euro I had something called Zaazaa.  It was a milk shake with banana, apples, peanuts, and lets not forget the custard and avocado.  Believe it or not, it was amazing! 

The next day I made it a point to just have some of the chicken that was roasting in the window and it was beautifully doused in a fantastic floury of spices.  It beat Nando’s (remember?  From New Zealand?) We also went to a sandwich place for lunch that was completely in Arabic, luckily we could just point at  the raw meat of choice and watch them cook it up along with a paste made of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro that was grilled into a goo.  The shop owner then tore all the inner whites from a French role and filled it with what came off the grill.  This, along with minced onions, pickles, peppers, and a squirt of secret sauce made for a brilliant Moroccan sandwich. 

Chef Chaouen is the first stop on my Moroccan adventure and so far I am impressed with the food.  I have mixed views of the people, and am adjusting to third world living standards, but my wallet is happy.  The bus ride was only 4 euro and this was a private bus company.  If we take a public bus, it is said to be even much more cheap, but we are likely to not have a seat (for 4 hours) and be holding our new friends chicken on our shoulder.  Accommodation was 4.5 euros per person per night (as compared with 15 the night before in Spain). 

Just the same as going to China from Japan, Morocco will take some getting used to, but I have high hopes in the local spirit.  I can’t believe I’m in Africa!

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Valencia and Granada

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

 

If it seems like the posts have been getting a bit more boring recently, I can explain. My heart hasn’t really been in the posts recently because I am becoming restless. Europe is loosing its effect on me and I seek something to shock me. Capitals and monuments are all bleeding together, enormous churches are becoming unremarkable.

Worse yet, the friends I have been making are looking more and more disposable recently. This strikes a vain that runs home.

I don’t bother to gather the contacts of the people I have met recently. It reminds me of the colossal change that took place over the past 60 years or so. It used to be, in the old days, folks made a promise, and stayed married to that promise, largely, without fail. (wow, comparing friends to marriage. What a loony. Shuuuuush, read on!)

Marriage was a simple thing, without options. You got married, without the expectation to stay in a foolish 200 mile per hour lust of perfect hormones. You grow old together, playfully pointing out each others wrinkles while sacrificing everything for those who will carry the your torch. You joke, you grow cold, and you embrace true camaraderie or you completely disappear to one another.

Now a days, marriage seems to be disposable and I think part of the reason is because we are largely trained to treat our other relationships that way. If it ain’t working out, just get a new one :)

What does this all have to do with my traveling anyway? Good question. I’m not sure, but maybe it will make a bit of sense by the end.

Awareness! It’s the key to happiness. No no my friends, it isn’t ignorance (though blissful as it may be)! I am aware that I am begining to find other travelers disposable, so I am going to overtly combat that urge. That being said, lets finish Europe strong!!!

Valencia is a nice town with a beach that reminds me of California a bit. But I am really enthusiastic about Granada, which is said to Swallow travelers up. It is said to do this because it is such a charming place to be. The rent is low, the tapas are free (with the purchase of a drink) and the town is largely a college town. It is slow yet bustling. No one is actually from the city anymore. In this respect, it is a lot like San Diego. Wow, two mentions of home in one paragraph. Am I getting home sick? Fuck no! You should be medicated for such thoughts !

Granada is a labyrinth of artful alley ways. There is a well known sociology professor here who was caught for drawing penises on the walls and also tagging such phrases as “Sticky pussy!”. At the age of 65, he remains free to roam the streets and produce more socially shocking graffiti because the Spanish courts take a one month summer recess during the time of his court date. Because he has had more time granted by this governmental siesta, he frequently tags sub-notes on his original works of art like “you’ll never catch me!!” Which makes the whole story even more lovely.

To wrap up Spain, I must comment on the languages. Yes, thats right, languages. There are three majors spoken here. Basque, Catalonian, and Spanish. But let us not forget the many local dialects including Castilian. And as far as accents go, the most interesting might be the heavy lisp you will find on everyone in Barcelona. This is said to come from a king many years ago who had a lisp. No one had the guts to tell him he was speaking incorrectly. To the contrary, everyone just started speaking with a lisp to make the king feel normal (and probably to avoid being beheaded). Long story short, everyone in Barcelona has a huge lisp and if you speak Spanish without one to them, they will quickly correct you on the spot.

These are the fun types of tid bits you could never know unless you just go here and everywhere else in the world.

Get out here !!!

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Africa!!!

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

hey yall

I am in Morocco for the next two weeks

i MIGHT be able to post, but might not

ill still be typing a bunch , but ill post it all later; or maybe sooner!! you will have to check and see

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