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Berbers, Gorges and the Route of 1000 Kasbahs

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On our way from the Sahara to Marrakesh, we got to see more of the Morocco’s impressive scenery and learn about the Berbers. Really quickly, the Berbers are the indigenous population of Northern Africa, stretching from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic to somewhere west of the Nile in Egypt. I was surprised to learn about them, because I thought Morocco was entirely an Arab nation. Actually, although it’s an Arab-ruled nation, only about 30% of the population identifies itself as Arab – most people consider themselves Berber. Within the Berbers there are tons of tribes, each with its own dialect, customs, and, sometimes, tattoos. Some women even have tattoos on their chins that signify their tribal affiliation – unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of this.

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Nour with a glass of camel’s milk and the local products for sale

Our first stop was at a small farm, where we sampled camel’s milk. It’s about $6 a glass, so we all tried a few sips. I was expecting something sour like goat’s milk and had a stick of gum ready in my pocket to fix the taste after sampling, but was pleasantly surprised to find that camel’s milk is a slightly lighter version of cow’s milk, and very close to the American version of skim milk. The salesman told us “beaucoup vitamin” which I’m pretty sure means full of vitamins, but every specialty milk dealer I’ve encountered lately says their stuff is the healthiest, so who knows.

Next up was the Todra Gorge, where we walked along its creek, then through a palm grove to see the local agriculture. The actual village was tiny and partly empty, as lots of people have left to find work in Casablanca or Europe. The villagers devised an irrigation system full of dikes and dams to support each family’s plot along the creek. Along with the date palms, olives, cabbage, almonds, peppers, and beans were growing. I hope I’m wrong, but I think this was the first time I saw a blossoming almond tree! We had the option of visiting a Berber carpet-making collective or continuing with the walk. Since I already have too many carpets and it was such a beautiful day, I decided to keep walking.

When we reached our pickup point, we had drinks on a hotel terrace while our guide, Nour, serenaded us with some of the Berber music that he’s learning.

The next morning we visited a local center for the disabled. Providing disabled people with education, or even a life outside the home, is a relatively new thing in Morocco. At this center they welcome people with physical and mental disabilities and try to give them a sense of purpose and community. They teach trades like knitting, sewing, and metalwork, and then the products are sold at the center’s shop to help support operations. I bought some jewelry and a tooled mirror that are my favorite things from Morocco.

In Quarzazate, we visited a Berber pharmacy. As in most cultures, the Berbers have a natural remedy/cure for every ailment. This particular pharmacist was big on promoting ginseng for ED and other sexual problems, and a daily shot of argan oil as a preventative health measure. After his hilarious presentation we got to shop. As somebody who religiously avoids all forms of medicine unless forced by terrible illness or the Navy, I was surprised to hear of all the ailments and remedies available. The pharmacy was kind of a natural goods store as well. I bought the Moroccan mixture of 35 spices, called Rad al Hamoud, and a very sweet-smelling curry powder. I even learned the ingredients in curry powder: coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek.

Quarzazate is Morocco’s Hollywood, in that it’s the country’s central studio area. Lots of films taking place in the Middle East, or the desert, were filmed here. Most recently: Babel and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and most famously: Laurence of Arabia. We stayed in the same hotel as Brad Pitt, but didn’t spot any stars this time.

We passed several studios on the road from Quarzazate to Marrakech, and then stopped at Ait Benhaddou, a ksar where the Gladiator was filmed and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A ksar is a fortified village of a kasbahs, which are fortified homes. Yeah, lots of fortifying going on here. The ksar was located on the Silk Road and a frequent stop for caravans. Most of the village is empty now. To encourage easy filming, the government has sponsored relocating the villages across the creek, but a few stubborn holdouts remain.

We came across these artists, who make paintings of the ksar and other Moroccan themes with the natural ingredients of green tea, indigo, and saffron watercolors. Then, the picture is heated, either by the sun or with a gas heater, to brighten and spread the colors – it’s pretty amazing to watch!

After climbing the kasbah, we were on the road to Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains, which has recently become famous because of this Cadillac ad. I was in the back of the van and felt every curve and drop – it was a pretty exciting drive!

Birthday in the Sahara

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the view from of the dunes from our hotel in the Sahara

I’m a little behind on blog posts, but I’ve got a bit more to share about my trip to Morocco.  After visiting the medina in Fes and and shopping a little more than I had planned at all the charming factories of Fes, I was relieved to get out of the cities and head to the Western Sahara.

The drive was phenomenal – I had no idea of the variety of landscapes in Morocco!  I mentioned earlier that I didn’t really pack properly for a winter in Morocco.  On our drive, once again I didn’t dress correctly.  I thought that since we were in Morocco and driving to the desert, I would be warm enough wearing light clothes and flats with no socks.  It works all over California, I thought, why not Morocco?  Although the van was nice and toasty, we took our first rest break outside Ifrane, where there was snow on the ground!

The Atlas Mountains are divided in three parts: the anti, middle, and high ranges, situated on a northeast-southwest plane.  The High Atlas are, not surprisingly, the highest elevation, but located in between the Anti and Middle Ranges.  The middle range is north and the Anti Atlas in Southern Morocco.  On the drive from Fes to the Western Sahara, we drove through the Middle Atlas before reaching the dunes.

Along with snow and mountains, we saw more lush farmland, rolling hills, high desert, and all of the subclimates along the way.  Between the mountains and the desert, we stopped at this creek for a picnic lunch with bread we had bought at a village bakery on the way and wine and cheese from a supermarket outside of Fes. It was one of my favorite meals on the way.

I may have mentioned it before – I really hate camels.  From my experiences with them in the Arab countries of the Middle East I learned that they will spit at you, and, given the chance, bite.  Never trust their perpetual smiles!  I had also thought that their meat wasn’t so tasty, but after enjoying a camel burger in Fes, I thought I’d give riding one another chance as well.  I found myself straddling Mehmet, a Moroccan camel who grumbled with every move.  You board the camel while it’s laying down, then it goes through an odd maneuver to stand up.  As it straightens its hind legs, you’re lurched forward, then thrown back as it unbends its front knees and ankles.  I tightened my core, held on, and before I knew it I was focused more on my camera and capturing the amazing views than grabbing the saddle handles. Riding a camel is a lot easier than riding a horse; except for the boarding process, you don’t really need to hold on.

Our camel guides led us out to some dunes while running up and down to take these awesome silhouette pictures.  At some point we stopped, and they recommended we kick off our shoes, and run up the dune for a great sunset view.  I realized that they were each only wearing socks to trudge through the sand.  Because the sky was so clear, the setting sun wasn’t spectacular, but I loved pulling my toes through the cool sand and watching the light change on the dunes.  It was a perfect place to celebrate another year!

Fes

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A benefit of traveling to new places is learning how small and connected the world is. For instance, I always thought the fez hat (red round felt or cloth hat with a black tassel on top) was Ottoman. Actually, it came to fashion in the 17th century in the town of Fes and then spread in popularity throughout Northern Africa. Eventually the Ottomans adopted it as a fashion, and then the Sultan started requiring the Janissaries and other government officials to wear it in an attempt at modernization, which is how it became symbolic of the Empire. When Ataturk started the Turkish Republic, he banned the fez in favor of Western European hats in another effort at modernization.
In another historical link, in Turkish the entire country of Morocco is called Fas. The Ottomans only got as far as Fes and the name stuck, even after the current country of Morocco underwent one political upheaval after another before finally becoming the independent monarchy that it is today.

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Fes has been a seat of power in Northern Africa for centuries. The oldest university in Africa, as well as the Islamic education system of madrasahs, was founded there in the ninth century by a woman (!). The current king’s wife, a thoroughly modern woman, and the first one to maintain a public lifestyle after a royal marriage, is from Fes.
We spent an entire day walking through the medina (old city) of Fes. It’s huge and full of thousands of winding zig-zagged corridors, half of which lead to dead ends. We had a guide – otherwise I’m certain we would still be lost.
I really loved that Fes’s souq was still operational, and not just a tourist shopping destination. In addition to the various factories that we saw, local people were everywhere going about their daily activities. I wish I could share the sounds and smells with you – the pictures don’t share the whole experience. Each area of the medina is dedicated to a particular activity, like the tannery, food sellers, wool dyers, carpentry, or whatever.

My favorite spot was the metal worker’s square, where the taps of hammers on metal created a symphony of hustle and bustle when I stood in the middle. Before climbing to the top balcony of a leather shop to get a bird’s eye view of the tannery, one of the merchants handed each of us a bundle of mint to counter the ammonia stench. To produce the leather, lime, natural dyes, and pigeon poop (for ammonia) are used.

20130120-183724.jpgIf you look at this tannery picture, you can see the varieties of dyes used, as well as the animal skins drying in the sun.
As I’ve learned from the carpet dealers, the longer you spend in a shop, the more likely you are to buy. I didn’t think I was in the market for leather products, but ended up with a pair of turquoise ballerina flats and a big pouf made with camel skin.
Since the souq was so busy, I tried to take lots of “street shots” to give you a idea of the fashion and activities that we saw.

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More from Morocco

On my first day of touring Morocco, we went from Casablanca to Meknes, an old imperial city, and Volubilis, the biggest Roman city in Morocco. Of course, the most memorable part of the day was eating something new – this time it was camel burgers! I had eaten camel before in Egypt and hated it, but the guide said these were amazing so I thought I’d give it another try. These were in a bread like pita and filled with meat and tomatoes. The meat was ground up camel with spices, called kafte, which is similar to Turkish köfte and what we Americans call meatballs. Nine of us ate these sandwiches squeezed into a tiny one table restaurant in the middle of the medina, which is the Moroccan version of a souk or bazaar or market.
There are butchers everywhere in the Medina, and they display an animal’s head to represent what kind of meat they sell – apparently the difference between cow and camel isn’t always discernable by taste.

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Before we left Casablanca, we stopped at Hasan II mosque. This mosque was built in the 90s by the former king, but according to my guide, all Moroccans were required to buy “postcards” annually for years to support its construction. The mosque and its surrounding buildings reminded me of all the buildings and mosques in Southern Spain – what do you think?

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Meknes is a city all about the king. At one point, he had 12,000 horses, 500 concubines, and more than 800 children. The city was originally founded as a fortress in the 9th century by a Berber tribe, but rose to prominence under Moulay Ismail when he was the Sultanate (king) of Morocco. We saw the stables that housed all the horses, the granaries, and the basin around which the harem would gather each night for him to choose a companion. The old city is surrounded by 42 km of walls, some of which encase the royal palace which is still closed to the public and available for use by the current king. These palaces are all over the country at who knows what kind of drain on the nation’s coffers. The Moroccans that I’ve met love to muse about the lifestyle (and its costs) of the royal family. Inside the walls, we walked through incredibly narrow streets filled with all kinds of daily activities. Unfortunately because of the rain the square was empty so I still haven’t seen the snake-charmers and other family entertainment traditional in Morocco’s cities. Hopefully they’ll be around in Marrakech.

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Next stop was Volubilis, the source of a lot of the marble columns now found in Meknes. It started as a Phoenician and Carthaginian settlement in the 3rd century B.C. and became a Roman city in the 1st century A.D. Now it looks like a Roman ruin, and of the Roman cities that I’ve seen it has the most impressive mosaics. Compared to Ephesus, which is only 17% excavated, Morocco has a lot of work to do. Still, there was a real beauty to the ruins partly covered by vegetation. Because we were walking between rainy and sunny spots, I was freezing and trying not to slip in the mud, so I didn’t listen so well to the history of the place. If you look behind some of the mosaics, you can see how lush this part of Morocco is – I had no idea! I did hear that the Romans used this part of Northern Africa as its breadbasket.

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Pictures from Morocco

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I’m happy to report that my stroke of bad luck was short-lived – I feel like the travel fairy is smiling on us again. After the torrential rain in Meknes and Volublis, we started a day in Fes with sunshine!
Luckily the ATM that ate my card was at an actual bank, so I when I went back the next morning I was able to show my passport, sign a lot of papers, get my card back and get money. I wasn’t the only victim, though. The teller chuckled when I explained my situation, then shuffled through a stack of about 50 cards to find mine. Although I’ve never paid a lot of attention to where I got money before, I definitely recommend using ATMs at actual banks, especially if you don’t speak any of the local languages. In Morocco, depending on where you are, that includes Arabic, Berber, French, or Spanish. Although a lot of the younger generations learn English in high school, public signage doesn’t yet include it. I was surprised when my Royal Air Maroc flight went through the safety instructions in Arabic, French, English, and Turkish, but I guess that’s how they cover all interested parties.
The only problem that still remains on this trip is my camera. The auto focus on my good lens was on the occasional fritz, and after being waterlogged for several hours, it seems permanently dysfunctional. I’ve been using manual focus, but it’s a lot slower, and I don’t completely trust my eyesight to get the right picture, especially when everything is covered in geometric tiles which quickly highlight the fuzziness in a picture. I also had problems turning the focus ring while trying not to fall off a camel today in the dunes. Tomorrow, in the interest of safety, I’m switching to the kit lens and my phone for pics.
Okay, the Internet isn’t so good here. Hopefully I’ll get some pics up at the next place.

The End of Travel Karma as I Knew It

For somebody who has had a long run of decent travel karma, for the first time that I can remember I experienced some severe travel angst. In the last two days, all kinds of things went wrong. Don’t worry, everything is fine. I think I’ve just hit the bottom after a long run of very good luck.
After a heinous ride to the airport through Ankara’s snowy, curvy, and steep streets where my taxi skidded several times and almost hit a plow, I realized when boarding the plane to Istanbul that I had left my passport on my scanner at home. For a $300 penalty and a round-trip taxi fare to my flat, I was able to rebook my flight.
We had two aborted take-offs before we were sky-borne on the flight to Istanbul. Instead of my beloved Turkish Airlines, the Istanbul-Casablanca leg was on Royal Air Maroc. My plane was packed with smelly, pushy passengers yelling over the seats to each other with great excitement. I was relieved when two Turks sat in my row – I wouldn’t have to spend the whole flight breathing into my perfumed protection scarf and pretending that I was anywhere else. Actually, these guys were really friendly and gave my Turkish a great workout with several hours of pleasant conversation.
I arrived in Casablanca after dark and we left the next morning as the sun was rising, so I didn’t get to see very much of the city. The sky was beautiful, though, and we had a glorious sunrise while taking pictures of Hasan II Mosque. It’s the largest in Africa and has the tallest minaret (300 m) in the world. The shape and design reminded me of Moorish-influenced Southern Spain.
When packing for my trip, the extent of my research involved thinking: Morocco is a hot desert, but it’s winter, so I should bring a pair of actual shoes (instead of just sandals) and some long sleeves. Oops. The forecast this week calls for 50-60F and rain. While visiting Meknes, an old imperial city, and Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman City, we got drenched! On the plus sides, the mosaics at Volubilis are probably more beautiful with the rain constantly keeping them clean and shiny.
The down-side is that I think my camera is shorted out, so it’s unclear if I’ll take anything better than iPhone pics for the rest of the trip. I’ve been thinking about getting a new camera for a year, but since there wasn’t anything wrong with the one I have, I’ve held back. So, unless I can get the soaked one to work again, I can finally treat myself to a new machine!
Last night after cleaning all the mud off my shoes and pants, I stuffed towels into them to absorb as much water as possible. This morning, I’ve been using the hair dryer in burst cycles until it overheats to at least dry out the insides of my shoes. I have wool socks, which are supposed to keep you warm even while wet – looks like today I get to test out that theory.
After freezing on the bus, when we got tot the hotel in Fez, I took a hot shower to warm up, a nap to calm down, and then headed out to find an ATM. Then the machine ate my card! The guide lent me money for dinner and drinks, and this morning before we head into the medina I’ll see if the bank can extract my card and if I can still get money off of it.
As I write this, I realize that nobody died, and I’m not sick or unable to continue the trip. it’s just been one small annoying problem after another. Today I’m hoping for some pleasant positive experiences, a little sunshine and warmth, and access to my money. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy New Year, with love from Dublin

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light show at Trinity University.

New Year’s Eve is my favorite holiday: champagne, fireworks, and all bliss, no stress! This year to celebrate I met some friends in Dublin for an awesome long weekend introduction to Ireland.

We picked Dublin because the stateside friends got a groupon deal for airfare, a car rental, and five nights at the Ritz for $999 (so remember to check, friends!).  The deal didn’t really work for me to come from Turkey, so once again I rented a flat from airbnb.com, and once again I wish I had taken better pictures of my gorgeous lodging.  This place was described as a Georgian Oval studio, and the room was a complete oval, with round walls that unfortunately I don’t think you can see in my phone pics.

Karin, the owner, brought me the fixings for an Irish breakfast, including a warm loaf of bread and homemade butter.  I couldn’t let that combination go to waste, so I had a yummy slice before everybody showed up for breakfast the next morning.   With a fire going and a warm breakfast, the flat was extremely cozy and so difficult to leave that on our first day together, we didn’t manage more than finding a bus out to Powerscourt, the old garden estate that is now the Ritz. In Enniskerry, the nearest town, I had my first authentic Irish version of Shepherd’s Pie: somehow the potatoes were creamier and the meat underneath was tender – it was heaven!

One quick warning about Ireland – during the Christmas holiday (roughly the two weeks surrounding Christmas, starting on the weekend before and ending the Monday after New Year’s Day) a lot of stuff is closed.  Unfortunately most of the amazing restaurants and bars our host recommended had boarded windows, and the Trinity University Library, where I most wanted to go and worship books, was closed until the day after I had to leave.

On Day 2 we drove west across the country to the Cliffs of Moher.  As much as I love cities, I’m really starting to prefer the drives and remote places when I visit a new country.  I loved interpreting road signs in foreign languages (this time Gaelic, aka Irish), and cheering on my friend Brent while he drove on the wrong side of the road with the stick on his left hand side like a pro.  An hour or so into the drive everybody was hungry and craving coffee, so we took a turnoff whose exit sign had pictures for food and drinks.  The road was narrow and winding with crumbing stone houses and churches and walls along the side, but unfortunately every cafe and pub we passed was closed.  Interestingly, everywhere we drove that morning it seemed like only the butcher shops were open.  Eventually we u-turned and rejoined the highway.

When we finally arrived at the Cliffs, we were going to hit up the snack bar, but since the sun was actually shining we decided to start walking and try to get good pictures.

While we were there, the weather changed from sun to rain to hail to dangerously windy.  It’s amazing that every locale on earth has a micro climate, complete with some peculiar weather phenomena – it always feels like a stroke of luck when I get to experience one of them, like the seafoam storms at the Cliffs of Moher.  As the clouds covered the sun, small white flecks started flying up off the cliffs, dotting the sky and land.  At first I thought they were small birds with crazy flight patterns, until one landed on my shoulder.  It was not a bird, but a large piece of salty foam (yeah, I tasted to make sure).  It’s like a snowstorm, except the foam is flying up from the ocean and then floats on the wind.

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Do you see the rainbow?

Gradually the wind picked up, and we headed to the tower on the other end of the cliffs.  The wind intensified so much that we couldn’t even make it to the other edge.

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Kim battling the wind.

Back in Dublin, we managed to see a few more sites: Trinity University, St. Patrick’s Church and Christchurch.

Running out of time, we had to decide between visiting the Guinness and Jameson factories.  The group split, and Kim and I hit up the Jameson Factory.    The Jameson tour begins with a hokey video and then you walk through mock-ups of what used to be at the site.  Now all Jameson whiskey is made at one central site in Ireland, so what’s bottled here is to demonstrate for the tourists and considered reserve.Our friends said the Guinness tour was also lame, but you get a sample at the midpoint and a pint at the end on a great rooftop with beautiful views of the city.  Even while feeling like a sheep being led through the Jameson factory, I did pick up some interesting facts about the whiskey-making process.

Jameson’s is made with barley.  It’s also triple-distilled, now in more modern stills that what you see above.  They use three types of seasoned (used) barrels for aging: Kentucky bourbon, Portuguese port, and sherry from Spain.  In the aging process, whiskey gains color from the tannins in the wood, and loses some volume due to evaporation.  By 18 years, only 2/3 of the original fill remains, and the whiskey is considerably darker.  After the aging, equal volumes from all three types of barrels are married together to blend the flavors, and then bottled.  Pretty neath, eh?

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In the picture above the top two barrels are aged 12 and 18 years, from left to right. On the bottom row, from left to right, is a new barrel, 3 year (minimum in Ireland to sell whiskey), and 8 year.


For New Year’s we watched the fireworks, then headed to a club in the Temple Bar Area. Unfortunately as the party got started, everyone in the group was battling illness or sleep, so we headed home before midnight. I struck up a conversation with my cab-driver, who then joined me at a sports bar near my flat. I didn’t want to end one year and start the next alone on the couch. The other Irish at the bar were pretty boisterous with hugs and kisses everywhere for everybody! Although eventually I had to ditch my now drunk and too-friendly cab-driver friend, it was a fun way to welcome 2013.

I know I’m a little late in saying this, but Happy New Year!!!!

If you’re interested in the Cliffs of Moher, here’s a youtube video that explains the geology.    Bonus: you get to listen to an Irish accent!

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