May 22, 2004

Morocco - May 22, 2004

**"Namaste! Where you from? India? Pakistan?"**

The touts here in Morocco speak more hindi, gujarati, and indian dialects than me. To avoid hassle, I've been trying to pass myself off as Indian (even going so far as to speak with an accent) since Indians are much, much lower on the Big Wallet Scale than Canadians. The consequence, of course, is that I end up being followed through the souqs by Moroccans babbling away in languages I barely understand, inquiring about various indian movies. I now know the names of several indian movie stars.

**A cook's hospitality**

After a rather dull time in Casablanca, I headed out to Marrakech. What a city! Picture a medieval square brimming with storytellers, snake charmers, traditional musicians, cheap and somewhat questionable eats, and cross-dressing nomad belly dancers. One would think that this spectacle was custom made for arrogant french tourists, but, amazingly enough, the majority of the spectators are Moroccans who cannot afford satellite tvs.

As you enter the smoky square, you are assaulted with a cacauphony of music, a visual orgy of dance and color, and the smell of charred meat. As you weave through the street stalls, you are offered a variety of treats, ranging from the standard sausages to fresh snails to boiled sheeps head. It really made me think : who wakes up in the morning, turns to his wife and says "Fatima, today I feel like eating a sheep's head and also eating its pancreas!"

Tempting fate - but attracted by the low prices - I made a point of eating every meal in the market -grilled chunks of meat, cheap saussages, 20 different types of olives, and a never-ending supply of bread... all washed down with 25cent freshly-squeezed orange juice.

At our friends' recommendation, we picked a hotel with a terrasse that overlooked this nightly sensory feast. On arrival at Hotel Ali, I insisted on seeing the room before committing to it. The receptionist yelled something in Arabic at the Cook, the only other employee in sight. Cook grabbed me by the wrist and half-dragged me up two flights of stairs to the room. Throwing open the door, he presented the beds, the bathroom, and the window. He waited patiently as I inspected the shower and the toilet. And then, in response to my curt "yes, I'll take it!" he grinned, closed the door happily, handed me the keys with a flourish, and said the only two french words he knew : "Bon Appetit!"

** A country of contrasts ***

After a couple of days in Marrakech, we left for a tour of Morocco. A 12 hour drive took us through some of the most varied terrain I've ever seen. We left the relatively lush valley surrounding Marrakech then drove up and up and up through the Atlas Mountains, where we were rewarded with some stunning mountain vistas. There was still snow on some of the 3000m peaks. Then, we descended down to the arid plains, the pre-desert.

After some stops at some Kasbas (hill forts), we then drove for miles and miles, staring at an endless flat plain of dirt, shrubs and sand. And then, suddenly, we descended into a fertile gorge, where we were surrounded by palm trees, fields of wheat, and towering cliffs. We spent the night at a wonderful guest house, where we had a dinner of couscous, tagine (moroccan stew) and chicken. The next day, we continued for another six hours in the car (again stopping in some fantastic gorges along the way) and finally reached our destination : the edge of the sahara desert.

We admired the sudden change : instead of flat, rocky plains, we were presented with golden dunes that stretched majestically as far as the eye could see. Two hours later, after a rather painful camel ride, we set up camp at the foot of a 300m high sand dune. Unforgettable. I surprised Z-mama by bounding out of bed at 430am and then wheezing my way up that dune (the soft sand made it almost impossible to climb) to catch the sunrise.

I am now in Fes, at least $45 poorer after having bought two carpets. These Moroccans sure can haggle! I think I held my ground pretty well, but it didn't help that the carpets I bought were the first ones I really loved.

May 09, 2004

Madrid, Spain - May 9, 2004

Sleep deprived

Hello! I´m in Madrid, enjoying my friend Crazy Spaniard's hospitality and am loving it, despite not having slept much since thursday. That´s spanish life. It´s past 11pm and we´ve just started thinking about having dinner. I requested an early night (to catch up on sleep and to overcome jetlag) and Jose assured me that I´d get to sleep by around 130am tonight.

Not a clean toilet to be found

Let´s go back a couple of days to friday afternoon. After a long, uneventful flight from San Francisco, I had 3 hours to kill at JFK airport. I ended up spening that time looking for a clean toilet. Before I left SF, I had naively thought that I´d be assured dependable plumblng until I arrived in Casablanca. However, for some inexplicable reason, Terminal 3 at JFK had one functioning men´s bathroom. After impatiently enduring a 10 minute line to get in, I discovered that 3 out of 4 toilets were roped off. The last one was worse than some of the latrines I experienced in Cairo so I resigned myself to walking to Terminal 2. Imagine my disgust when I learned that two out of three bathrooms there were also out of order. A walk to Terminal 1 finally yielded a clean toilet.

"Benga! Benga! Take cover my friend!"

Fast forward several hours. After an uncomfortable cross Atlantic flight marred by a baby that wouldn´t stop crying, I finally arrived in Madrid to find a grinning, black-clad Crazy Spaniard waiting for me. He let me nap for 1.5 hours before the Weekly Family Lunch where we enjoyed a wonderful meal before the news broke: today we would celebrate C´s final day as a bachelor. C, Crazy Spaniard's best friend, speaks perfect english, and had just accepted a residency in Salinas, California. To make it easier for his girlfriend to join him in the US, he decided to marry her. I´m not so sure about that logic, but I´m more than happy to join a good party. The first stop was an afternoon of painball. The adneraline kicked in and and I was soon in a mud-filled bunker with paintballs whistling over my head. The highlight was a game that loosely translated into "hunt the bachelor." We were each given six bullets and C was given a full cannister. C got a two minute head start to hide and we then had to find him. If he hit us, we were out. C only managed to kill one of us and took at least ten shots before the referree called a mercy ending.

A sea of spanish mullets

While the others bbqéd, I managed to sneak in an hour nap. We finally feasted at 1am and, after a good hour and a half of eating and telling stories, decided to get ready for the club. Crazy Spaniards´s brother knew a dancer at the club, so we all got in free. The club was impressive. Smoky, cosy, loud, and full of energy. Gorgeous dancers strutted on stages, flashing skin and body parts not usually seen in American clubs. As we weaved through a crowd of sweaty, scantily clad, gyrating bodies, I couldn´t help notice how many men sported Mullets. Business in the front, party in the back. And all grease. We danced until 7am and as I took breaks from the Euro Techno beats, I not only admired the dancers, but also entertained myself by giggling at the different types of mullets : Unkept, straight mullets. Curly ones, immacutately groomed in the front, wildly savage in the back. Conservative, slickly combed mullets. Macho, long braided mullets. Thank god I got my hair cut before I left San Francisco. Otherwise, I may have ended up with the Classic Spanish Cut.