Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Well its been a long couple of months of traveling since I last posted. In that time I've had the good fortune to go all over Morocco, Southern Spain, Mauritania, welcome a new group of IES students, and then go on a road-trip with a few good friends. As you can imagine I have quite a few stories, pictures and thoughts to share from that time, but trying to post them all would overwhelm not only you all, but me as well. Fortunately, however, during my travels I have been keeping a somewhat sporadic (but nonetheless interesting) journal of my thoughts and experiences and what I have done in this post is to transcribe and edit (slightly) some of my journal entries from my trip to Mauritania. Enjoy, and, as always feel free to peruse my newly added pictures on facebook and send me comments or emails.

The train station of Nouadhibou is a simple concrete structure that sits along a deserted windswept portion of the single two-lane strip of asphalt which winds from the center of Nouadhibou down the peninsula to the Spanish built compound of the SONIM mining corporation. Composed of a large L-shaped waiting room open on one side to the desert and train track and a small abandoned room where, once, presumably a lone ticket seller must have sat, the train station is little more than a glorified concrete 3-walled hut in which the occasional colonial mining overseers, geographers, soldiers and administrators (and perhaps their families) must have sat, sweating into their linen shirts and muttering in French while they waited for the only train with a passenger car to take them out to provincial capital of Chinguetti or the mining colony of Zouerate.

I'm sitting on one of the two concrete benches partially lining one wall, staring ahead at the opposite wall which is slowly reverting to its natural state of grayish white plaster covered in French and Arabic graffiti. The sky-blue paint, probably last touched up in the waning years of colonial administration, has peeled into jagged and ragged archipelagos. Beside me are two French backpacking tourists, the man reading Terre Des Hommes by Saint-Exupery while the woman examines a photo on the screen of her SLR digital camera, draped in a swathe of orange and green blobbed cloth which she no doubt purchased recently in one of the cloth stalls of the Nouadhibou or Nouakchott souks. To our left, sitting perpendicular to us on the short end of the L is a moul-atay, alternating two teapots off of a propane burner, pouring, mixing, re-pouring, relighting and reheating the tea until the glasses contain thick heads of froth which take up half of the small shot-sized glasses.

In front of us four African women and their assorted entourages of toddlers, loafing young men and hard-working pre-teen daughters are setting up shop. Rickety tables are covered with 8-inch stacks of egg-carton flats, the better to display bottles of water, UHT boxes of milk, fruit juices, cigarettes, cookies, clementines and chew sticks. The women laugh and playfully banter as they sweep out the floor by their makeshift stalls with bundles of sticks. One of them admires the French touriste's cloth draping and then promptly re-drapes and dresses her properly cooing and giggling the entire time. The moul-atay walks around with his tray of three tiny glasses filled with foam offering tea. A few more men, immigrant laborers from farther south in Africa, wander in from the open desert side of the station and take up chunks of the space on the benches lining the walls.

2:30 p.m., and the train which was scheduled to arrive around this time has not. Groups of men, some of them the immigrant laborers and some of them Mauritanians swathed in the traditional robes go out to pray, standing, kneeling and sitting in the makeshift mosque constructed out of a ring of stones in the open stretch of sand between the station and train tracks. Women wander off singly an find a spot in the desert in which to pray.

3:00 p.m. More and more people file in, including a group of Mauritanian women, most likely Beidane, all elaborately draped and swathed and accompanied by their adolescent relatives and an older 30-something male relative who wears an impeccably clean white traditional robe and whose hair has been combed back and gelled into place. The women quickly become the center of activity as the pass around and examine their two pieces of luggage, both packed into chinese-made rolling suitcases covered with flashy strips and polka-dots.

3:15 p.m. The group of Mauritanian women is preening the French touriste, adjusting and re-adjusting her drape amidst a chorus of giggling and jokes. The women show off their elaborately hennaed hands to the tourist and mention the word picture in French. The touriste tries to make excuses claiming her camera is stowed away. There is a moment of confusion and then the Mauritanian women laughingly pull out their cell-phones and begin snapping pictures of the touriste, posing beside her. Attention now turns to me and I am mobbed by the group who alternate sitting next to me as they snap pictures on their phones. The jokes soon turn to marriage and the women explode into hilarity as they compare their pictures to wedding photographs of the bride and groom. One of the adolescent relatives asks where I am going. When I say Choum and then Atar he is disappointed and tries to cajole me into continuing on to Zouerate where I am graciously invited to stay at their house. Fearing actual marriage I politely decline.

5:00 p.m. Still no train. The waiting room is now crowded with me, women and children in various positions of squatting, sitting and lying. Piles of baggage and groups of people sit for a few hundred yards in either direction along the tracks. Men go out in ones or twos to pray in the makeshift mosque. They stand and kneel in towards the qibla--three large stones, wind whipping their second-hand western clothes or flowing robes.

5:30 p.m. The sun is setting and its harshness has now changed to a benign warmth. With the wind it is becoming quite chilly in the shade. Conversation is a low rumble, with outbursts coming now and again. I wander out into the sand surrounding the station for a look around and fall into conversation with a young Mauritanian in French. He's named Salim and is going to Tchgish where he has been promised work for a few days. Normally he works in an auberge in either Chinguetti or in Nouadhibou. He invites me to stay at his family house in Tchgish for a few days before continuing on to Atar together. Made paranoid by State Department travel warnings I claim to be meeting friends in Atar who are waiting there for me.

7:00 p.m. Night has now fallen. The station is dark, lit only by the moonlight coming in form the open wall and the makeshift candle lanterns the the kiosk women have fashioned out of empty plastic water bottles. Another prayer session is being held, more sporadic and rag-tag this time. Salim comes into the station and finds me and we go out by the track where I am introduced to a Mauritanian matriarch (a friend of Salim's uncle) and her four female relatives of various ages who I am told will be traveling "dans le wagon" (in the open bucket car) to Choum like me. Salim and I squat in the sand by the track with the seated women, the wind blowing over us. The matriarch launches into a profusion of Hasaniya which I am unable to follow, my confusion at the barrage of questions being launched at me causes Salim to erupt into raucous peals of laughter. Piece by piece I am told that they will also be traveling to Atar, where they own a restaurant and I am invited to travel in a bush taxi with them from the train stop at Choum to Atar. Our conversation ends with me being forced to pronounce the matriarch's name (Leta) over and over accompanied by a chorus of laughter from everyone else at my attempts.

9:00 p.m. The train finally arrives, rumbling, jolting and screeching to a slow roll and then stop. As it is groaning to its stop Salim runs out with me and we approach a group cluster of men with sacks of goods piled next to the track. Salim hurriedly arranges in Hasaniya and then informs me that I will ride with them in this bucket car while he rides in the passenger car. I turn and begin loading sacks of onions and potatoes with two boys who are about my age. The sacks loaded we clamber up and over the side, landing in a giant steel bucket thankfully free of iron ore except for small piles of dust in the corners. Another 30-something man clambers aboard and, like the boys, wastes no time in laying out his sleeping pad and covering himself completely in a blanket. One of the boys invites me to sit on his pad and hands me a sandwich of onions and tomatoes as we creak into a roll. We are off and, as I stand to take in the view the first gust of dust washes over us, covering us and invading our eyes, noses and mouths.

11:00 p.m. Our first stop. I have been lying down completely covered by a shesh (nomadic head scarf). I am coated in dust and every time I peek out my eyes and nose are filled with dust. As we slow I am able to stand. The process of stopping takes around 20 minutes. It begins with a series of jolts which pass through the entire car and knock you off your feet if you are standing. Then come creaks and groans as the train grinds to a halt. In front of us there is a single bright light, strange and eerie in the flat emptiness of the desert cut only by the solitary train track. A half dozen cars ahead the profile of a shesh-clad rider is framed magnificently in the bright light-- a black and exotic silhouette surrounded by swirls of ghostly dusts. As we roll to our stop the light defines itself into the headlight of an engine waiting on a side-track. This is our counterpart returning from Zouerate, each car piled high with iron ore. There is a moment of disorienting uncertainty as we finally halt and the train beside us begins to slowly roll forward. Steadying myself against the side of our bucket I see solitary amorphous figures sitting on the iron ore, some with baggage one even accompanied by three tethered donkeys. In the final car sits a reclining figure--a silhouette of a djellaba with its high pointed hood, punctuated by the red dot of a burning cigarette tip. As the train glides onto the solitary track back to Nouadhibou the cigarette is raised in a hand, a solemn salute of a traveler passing in the night.

2:30 a.m. Another stop--the 30-something man in our car stands and asks me, presumably about where we are. From my post at the side of the car, swathed from head to foot and shivering I tell him I don't know in three languages. He grunts and, as the train groans to a stop he clambers over the side. I pass down his sack and he, along with a few other dark figures, strides off into the dark desert. Exhausted and tired of shivering I take out my sleeping bag and lay down on the creaking and groaning floor of the car.

7:00 a.m. The sun has risen and I, hoping to shake off the chill from the night and the wind, rise as well. I retie my shesh against the dust and stand at the edge of the car looking over fantastic and absolute desert broken only by the occasional plateau or mountain or grove of gnarled trees around which one or two nomad tents and a Toyota HiLux huddle. The mile markers next to the track read around five hundred.

7:30 a.m. The wagon-mate who shared a sandwich with me last night awakes and looks around. He looks at me and mentions something about Choum. After a few minutes of gesturing and a mix of broken French and Arabic (neither of which he seems to speak fluently) I conclude that I have slept through the stop for Choum and that I am well on my way to the end of the line at Zouerate. I ask and he assures me that I can take a bush taxi back to Choum and Atar.

8:30 a.m. The other wagon-mate and business partner to my informant awakes and sticks his head of his blanket. He pulls out a small bag and breakfast is shared around--small peanuts which taste fresh and a little green, although I am not sure as I have never had fresh peanuts.

9:30 a.m. We are arriving at Zouerate. Over kilometers we slowly creak and groan to a stop as we pass giant mountains, more gigantic mounds of iron ore scree with the occasional conveyor belt or loader machinery. Our final halt is in an flat desert plain populated only by a random collection of ancient Land Rovers converted into pickups, Hiluxes and the ever-present Mercedes sedans. One of the boys jumps down and we unload the sacks of potatoes and onions, which pour dust as we pick them up. I clamber down and, completely at a loss stand around. Finally one of the boys tells me to sit in the cab of the converted Land Rover Pickup which they have loaded their sacks into and we rumble off towards Zouerate.

Apparently the boys and driver had not taken me for a foreigner, at least not for an American. We had not bumped across the empty desert plain for more than fifteen minutes before we reached the first checkpoint, where, upon seeing my American passport the gendarmes (wearing olive drab sheshes) were clearly at a loss as to what to do. After a hurried consultation it was decided that I would dismount from the pickup and be driven to the police station by one of the gendarmes where I would have to file paperwork with the necessary authorities. This caused consternation amongst the boys and the driver who began shouting worriedly at the gendarmes as I was led over to their vehicle. I myself am to exhausted to care at this point, and far too exhausted to try any sort of evasion or resistance. The gendarmes and the boys are in a full-fledged argument with the gendarmes clearly throwing their weight and flexing their authority. Finally the driver runs over and the police officer asks if I am willing to pay him. I gladly give up 300 ouiguiya in order to pacify the situation.

10:00 a.m. I am driven into Zouerate by one of the officers, with a customary stop for gas. Th town of Zouerate, center of the Mauritanian mining industry and capital of the province of Tris Zemmour has about seven or eight well-paved arterials which connect a network of dirt tracks. At the wilayat administration building I am ushered from office to office by a bureaucratic functionary wearing a maroon button-up shirt and a belt which is so long it wraps around him one and a half times. I am eventually told to sit and a gendarme asks me a series of questions which he then fills into a form. The form completed I am ushered into another office which turns out to be the office of the 30-something provincial governor. He is sitting in an easy chair wearing a chic suit and flashy striped silk tie which gives the appearance of fine apparel if not the quality. The young governor is is seated opposite the police chief for the Tris Zemmour region who is sitting on a couch with various folders spread out on the coffee table before him. Upon learning that I am an American they invite me to sit in the third seat around the coffee table, and, after a careful inspection of my American passport in which I am asked to describe every one of the idyllic and picturesque scenes of Americana depicted in the pages (Mount Rushmore occupies a good ten minutes of mixed English-French-and-Arabic explanation met with incredulity) the functionary is dispatched to collect my paperwork and we continue with a pleasant conversation in our mix of French, Arabic and the police chief's surprisingly good English. The topics range from my studies, the city of Rabat, the benefits and downsides of the US Peace Corps, how I appear Saharoui when I wear a headscarf and whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a good American Ambassador to the Arab world (the police chief seemed sold on the idea). After this somewhat convoluted exchange of ideas and information, during which I become more and more aware of the fact that I am covered from head to foot in dust and am completely exhausted, I am dispatched with the functionary who, after a few stops and starts through various offices I am loaded into an official pick-up truck and driven to the "gare routiere" (which strangely resembles a dirt parking lot filled with toyota hiluxes in various states of repair) where I am transferred amidst general curiosity to a bush-taxi pickup headed for Atar.

Auberge Bab Sahara

The nation of Mauritania has no great works of architecture--it has no need of them. God has provided it with enough grandiose dunes, plateaus, mountains, buttes and valleys to dwarf the cathedrals of europe and the skyscrapers of Chicago, Singapore or Dubai. The Saharawi nomads do not pray in mosques. They simply stop their camels (or, more commonly, their toyota hilux) so that a giant dune or great cliff or grand peak stands between them and Mecca and touch their heads to the ground in servitude to the majesty of Allah.

Auberge Bab Sahara

Nouakchott is the capital of Mauritanian Islamic Republic and it is quite noticeably so. My trip from Atar was in the back seat of a crumbling Mercedes Sedan which had been hired by and aged French couple; the red-faced, white-haired Albert (a French ancién-militaire doctor now assisting in the establishment of medical services in Chinguetti) and his docile and equally white-haired wife were ex-patriate (and therefore default) friends of Juste, the wild-haired Dutch proprietor of Auberge Baba Sahara, who had kindly arranged these travel arrangements which allowed me, a poor American student out to see the world to travel to Nouakchott gratuit (but of course with a customary small tip for the driver). Albert and his wife both seemed to share a love for the country coupled with the typical European condescension and snideness at the third-worldness of it all. No one more than the European ex-pat or tourist will tell you how wonderful the country is or how nice the people and, with the same breath, make a snide remark when the driver stops to shake hands and share a smoke with the checkpoint gendarmes. Nevertheless the ride was a wonderful opportunity and the slight arrogance of my European companions (no doubt tempered by the Gallic disdain for anything or anyone which originates or occurs outside of l'hexagone) actually helped to add a comforting "retro" hint of colonialism to our trip as we twisted down from the Adrar plateau pausing on the edge of one town to buy smuggled Algerian petrol for the car and watermelons for my French benefactors before roaring through hours of flat and mirage covered desert, broken by the occasional cluster of simple houses or wide green plains where goats and camels ranged freely.

The two-lane asphalt strip which was our only path through this vast expanse was Mauritania's route nationale 1, built in 1942 by a colonial engineers battalion (Albert and wife had insisted we stop to photograph the plaque) and remains one of the few (or according to some, the only) paved highway in the country. Arriving from the provincial capital of Atar to the national capital of Nouakchott on this route one passes camel herd after camel herd, who form the backbone of the Mauritanian camel-dairy industry. (Camel milk is available pasteurized by the carton or fresh by the cup in nearly every corner store or grocery in Nouakchott.) Nouakchott itself rises out of the dunes--the wind blowing over them serves to shift them in and around the outskirts and new developments on the edge of the city, all the while allowing for a healthy circulation of the heaps of trash which coat them. Dodging donkey-carts with full oil drums of water bound for sale at the water souk, one passes from nomad camps to slum towns, before quite suddenly, arriving in chic neighborhoods of wide sand avenues lined with villas over whose walls peak the true signs of comfort and wealth in these desert lands--groves of trees.

After dropping the French couple at one such villa the driver and I continued onto one of Nouakshott's main avenues (General De Gaulle) passing opulent embassy compounds guarded by rag-tag but well-armed Mauritanian military. Crossing over to the Avenue Kennedy (complete with partly functioning streetlights) we struck rush hour. Even the poorest of third-world capitals can still boast miles of honking Mercedes taxis, overloaded trucks, land-rovers, flashy SUVs and weaving motorbikes and this after all, was the capital.

Auberge Menata

Friday, December 11, 2009


Hello all,

The end of the semester has arrived quickly. Finals week has begun and many of my classmates are beginning to prepare for their journeys home. For me the end of the semester means almost six free weeks, which, inshallah, I shall spend traveling.

In the meantime, I'm putting up a few photos of Chefchaouen (Chaouen as the locals call it). Chefchaouen is the major tourist destination in the Rif mountains, renowned for its quaint mountain-town atmosphere, nature and an economy based almost entirely on herding, wool production, tourism and hashish production. These factors have made Chaouen a major stop on the hostelling-backpacking route through Morocco. Thus the old medina abounds with Riads (traditional houses) converted into hostels and young European tourists out to see the world and smoke some cheap hash. For me and my traveling companions this allowed us to meet some other youthful travellers from around the world and share our experiences as well as sleep for cheap.

Stay posted, not really sure what the next few weeks will entail!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eid Al-AdHa

Happy Thanksgiving and Eid Mubarek Sayyid to everyone!

Last Saturday was eid al-adha or the feast of the sacrifice here in Morocco and across the Muslim world. In commemoration of Abraham's (Ibrahim's) willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, Muslims come together to spend time with family and celebrate with their families. In addition eid al-adha, being the feast of the sacrifice, involves the sacrificial killing of either a goat, cow or, most typically a sheep. I was invited to spend the eid in Fes with a good friend of mine, Atman, and his family. In addition to being treated to four days of excellent, delicious and more than plentiful home cooking by his mother, it was a great treat to get to return to the wonderful city of Fes and experience again it in a festive mood. It was a great weekend replete with a day trip into the beautiful mountains around Fes, particularly to the pretty mountain town of Ifrane where all of the trees were in full fall splendor, and with the exciting Real Madrid-Barca game which meant that every cafe across Morocco was packed with excited fans. And yes, we did indeed sacrifice a ram as you all have no doubt surmised from the picture. At least for me it was initially surprising how blasé the people around me were about the sacrifice. Although it was clear that certain members of the family preferred not to take part it was also clear that this was, for the most part, not that exciting--after all it takes place every year.

We had quite a bit of rain overnight in Fes but by the time I returned to Rabat the weather was once again gorgeous if a bit chilly.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weekend in Barcelona

It's late and I want to go to bed so this will be fast:

9:00 AM: Wake up. Realize our Moroccan friend Badr has spent the night in our apartment.
9:20: Finish final packing
9:25: Go to the hanout (corner store) to buy supplies (one [1]pack of eight [8] spreadable laughing cow cheese products, one [1] roll of bread, two [2] bimo crackers [golden variety]).
9:28: Return to apartment. Decide to make breakfast of sauteed potatoes, tomates and poached eggs.
9:35: Go to other hanout to buy potatoes, tomatoes and two eggs.
9:37: Find peppers and onion in fridge. Decide to add them to breakfast.
9:43: Start eating breakfast. Badr still asleep.
9:44: Get text from Jacob asking me where I am. Reply that I'm still at my apartment
9:45: Get text from Jacob telling me that train for the airport leaves at 10.
9:47: Finish cramming breakfast into my mouth. Badr still asleep. Debate waking him to tell him I'm leaving. Decide it's too much effort; time becoming urgent.
9:49: Arrive train station. Buy ticket. Cost is 75dhs. I have 50 dirham cents left.
9:50: Meet Jacob and Esther on platform. Mention how I thought we were taking the 10:45 train. Realize I haven't showered.
10:00: Train to airport departs.
11:00: Transfer trains in Ain Sebaa. Second train about 25 years older than the first with limited air conditioning. Realize again I haven't showered.
11:30: Arrive Mohammed V airport
11:43: Pass through security checkpoint. I set off the metal detector, gaurd waves me through anyway.
12:10: Check in for flight.
12:15: Fill out departure information form for immigration.
12:17: Pass customs checkpoint. Officer sees the cover of our passports and waves us through
12:23: Pass Immigration checkpoint. Officer looks over departure form, checks a box and throws it in trash can.
12:28: Pass security. I set off the metal detector, officer pats down my torso and pockets (which are full), asks me "labass?" (are you ok?) to which I reply "labass" (I am ok) and he waves me through. (Jacob brings his full 1.5 liter bottle of water through, Esther brings her pocket knife through in her carry-on)
12:38: Walk through duty free store. Alcohol and tobacco for cheap
12:47: Eat one packet of bimo (golden) crackers
1:12: Board plane
4:30 (Barcelona time): Arrive Barcelona
5:00 Pass through Immigration
5:10: Pass through Customs
5:12: Withdraw money from ATM. It works (al-hamdu l'allah)
5:23: Ask information desk for cheapest way to get to hostel in Barcelona
5:37: Buy ticket for Barcelona metro
6:00: Get on train.
6:45: Get off train. Walk wrong way
6:53: Realize we are walking the wrong way. Backtrack
7:14: Lost again
7:29: Realize hostel was block and a half away from metro station. Jacob buys pork cracklins from kiosk. Pork is delicious
7:43: Check into hostel.
8:16: Overwhelmed by how nice the 12 story high high-rise hostel is. Intrigued by pool which guests have access to
8:23: Go out to explore.
8:34: Buy two varieties of Cava (Catalan sparkling wine) from bottle shop. Total: 7.90
8:44: Meet Vicki and Laura, two of Esther's friends who are studying in Granada and who are staying in the same hostel for the weekend.
9:00: Finish second bottle of Cava. Decide to get dinner
9:15: Eat dinner of french fries and copious amounts of cheap meat. Realize how much I miss cheap meat
9:37: Go back to the hostel to meet Felicity, another one of Esther's friends studying in Belgium
9:54: Go out to explore
10:17: Get an Estrella Damm in local bar. Tapas are extra
11:14: Return to hostel. Sit in common area and meet other random travelers. Italians in Laura's room are loud obnoxious and speak only broken english and spanish.

8:30: Wake up and take shower in what is the best hostel shower I have ever experienced. Soap provided.
9:02: Go to free breakfast in hostel dining area. Include cereal, rolls, butter, jam, nutella, yougurt, coffee and juice. I stock up on rolls, butter, nutella and jam.
10:02: Depart for Picasso Museum.
10:25: Get sidetracked by open air market reminiscient of a souk and run mainly by North Africans
11:44: Find Picasso Museum. Meet with Steven, another one of Esther's friends who is studying in Granada
12:00: Pay 6 euros to get into Picasso Museum
12:49: View Picasso's numerous renditions of Las Meninas
1:37: Picnic lunch
3:48: Go to Park Guell (designed by Gaudi)
4:54: Arrive at Park Guell (designed by Gaudi)
6:47: Leave Park Guell (designed by Gaudi). Start walking back to the hostel
8:23: Buy bottle of wine at grocery store for 74 euro cents
9:04: Arrive at hostel. Decide to change and get dinner
9:27: Eat dinner; meat and french fries
10:20: Return to hostel. Try to go to pool. Realize that pool closes at 10 on Saturdays
11:32: Meet Ben from Mississippi. Goes to Ole Miss. Studying abroad in Greece and is here for a few days. Will be taking up the fourth bed in our room.

12:05: Open my bottle of wine
12:27: Finish bottle of wine. Start drinking Jacob's 4 euro fifth of whiskey
12:48: Depart for discotheque
1:03: Arrive discotheque. Get another drink.
3:30: Realize discotheque is comprised of 4-5 three story warehouses connected by balconies. Go to balcony with Mississippi Ben. Start conversation with Spanish guys about Morocco in French.
5:06: Leave discotheque. Arrive in time at hostel to help Jacob pay off his cab.
10:14: Get woken up by Esther. Realize that check out is at 10:30
10:32: Check out of hostel. Realize this now means I never got to go swimming
11:15: Leave bags in Felicity's room
12:20: Leave everyone napping at hostel. We agree to meet at Sagrada Familia (designed by Gaudi) at 2
12:23: Decide to go to Las Ramblas.
12:27: Arrive metro station. Realize I don't know where Las Ramblas is. Decide to take metro to station with the most amount of intersecting lines.
12:43: Leave Catalunya metro station. Notice large masses of tourists. Cross square with fountain and realize I have found Las Ramblas
12:44: Realize Las Ramblas is a solid traffic jam of tourists on foot.
1:00: Reach end of Las Ramblas. Walk along water. Still hungover
1:37: Realize I need to get to Sagrada Familia. Also realize I am now hungry
2:07: Get off at metro station for Sagrada Familia. Purchase ham flavored chips from vending machine.
2:08: Arrive Sagrada Familia (designed by Gaudi). Church is modern, crazy and awe-inspiring. Ham flavored chips amazing.
2:28: Still waiting for friends. Buy another bag of ham flavored chips
2:49: Still waiting for friends now concerned and angry. Watch angry French female tourist with her daughter drag a pickpocket out of the metro station and demand help from a security guard.
3:07: Realize that the clocks around me say it is 2:07
3:10: Meet friends. They tell me that time has moved back an hour.
2:20: Depart for Casa Battlo (Designed by Gaudi)
3:40: Arrive Casa Battlo. Very nice neighborhood. Mississippi Ben leaves o go meet friends at the Cathedral. Realize that the entrance fee for Casa Battlo is a staggering 16.50 Euros. Decide to get coffee. Jacob decides to go into Casa Battlo anyway
4:50: Meet with Jacob. Decide to go to Las Ramblas and find paella for dinner.
6:30: Eat dinner of paella. Extremely good.
7:00: Jacob departs to go see the Barca game. Esther and I are leaving in a few hours so we can't go
7:25: Get a gaufre (waffle) with gelato on it
8:15: Return to hostel to get our bags. I buy a chorizo along the way to take back to Morocco
9:00: Say our goodbyes and go to metro station to go back to airport.
10:30: Arrive airport. Check in.
10:45: Pass security. Esther's knife goes through fine.
11:30: Board flight.

12:55 (Moroccan time): Disembark flight. The doors into the airport from the gangway are locked. People bang on the window until security officers come to open it.
1:23: Pass through immigration. Receive another 90 day visa.
1:37: Pass through customs.
1:43: Exchange money. Train schedule confirms our belief that the next train is at 6.
5:30: Wake up on bench in the airport.
5:48: Board train back to Rabat
6:23: Switch train in Casablanca
7:30: Arrive back in Rabat. Eat a breakfast of leftover bread, nutella and nescafe.
8:30 Depart for class

Needless to say it was quite the weekend. In additional news my room now has curtains and I have purchased mobile internet.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Princes and Paupers

Last Friday the King opened parliament. Since my apartment is next to the train station (which is about a block away from parliament on the route between the royal palace and parliament) I naturally had to attend the festivities. I should mention that the city of Rabat has not been remiss in preparing for the big day. Crosswalks have been repainted, palm trees trimmed, new flags placed in the traffic circles and along buildings lining the grand boulevard of Mohammed V. In addition the police and army presence has been overwhelming. The parking lot outside my building was crammed full of anti-riot vehicles, and various military and law enforcement officers milled about in their freshly laundered and tailored dress uniforms. I met up with a few of my IES compatriots and we took up a position along the police barricades in front of the Hotel Balima. Men wandered through the crowd passing out small Moroccan flags made out of paper stapled to wood sticks as well as portraits of the King.

After a few minutes of milling around an honor guard of riflemen dressed in billowing white trousers, short white jackets and green fezes took up their position in front of parliament. There uniforms were, amazingly enough, not even close to the most spectacular costumes on display which ranged from traditional dress uniforms of green, gold and orange to military dress costumes of gray and black with white sleeves, belts and jackboots and of course the traditional white djellabas and red fezes. As the King pulled up in his motorcade all of the uniformed men came to attention and as he walked down the red carpet (which extended the length of the block) the honor guard presented arms and every officer turned and saluted. The captain of the honor guard bowed, sank to one knee and kissed the hand of the King and his brother, an act which was repeated by every dignitary. Meanwhile the crowd had erupted with all of us pushing and jostling to get a view of the King. It was quite an expereince both to see and to be in such an excited crowd.

This weekend I also had the good fortune to experience a true Moroccan souk. I went with some of my new found Moroccan friends, Aziz and Adam to Salé the city which is directly across the Bouregreg from Rabat. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Salé is to take a grande-taxi which involves cramming yourself into a Mercedes sedan with five other people (not counting the driver) and taking about a twenty minute scenic drive. The grande-taxi route between Rabat and Salé passes one of the major shantytowns which, my Moroccan friends assured me, is nto actually that dangerous. Although the houses are rickety and the alleys between them unpaved and filled with trash, every (and I mean every) household has a sattelite TV dish-a cheap form of escapism in our digital age.

The souk of Salé is held in in a large empty lot littered with trash picked over by the local cats, dogs and donkeys. In the center of this lot a variety of tarps, awning-tents and tables are laid out, strung up or cobbled together. It is on these tarps and tables that piles of clothes either rejected from European boutiques and department stores or purchased in bulk secondhand are piled, roughly sorted by type of clothing (men's jackets, women's jeans, t-shirts, shoes, etc.). The souk is essentially a large and well attended rummage sale, and (shifting our cell phones and wallets to our front pockets from our more easily picked back ones) we dove in; jostling for a good position to pick through the piles. Everything is cheap in the souk. Typical clothing prices are 8dh ($1) a t-shirt, 15dh for a pair of jeans or pants, 15-30dh for a jacket, sweater or pair of shoes and 50-60dh for a suit. Although much of what one finds at the souk is generally worth what you pay for it, half of the adventure is rummaging through and finding a good pair of designer jeans, a quality dress-shirt or an ironic t-shirt which is a true bargain. Combine this with the fact that tailors here are commonplace and cheap (3dh a shirt, 5dh for pants and about 20-30dh a suit) and I plan to be quite the well-dressed dandy for most of my time here.

Leaving the souk (which I should mention sells other goods than just clothing--I saw tarps and tables piled with everything from lightbulbs to teapots, blenders and stereos) we went to have lunch in the food market of Salé. This market was half permanent stalls and half shanty-stalls, with vegetables, fruit, fish, spices, grains and olives piled high. The pathways were narrow and mostly dirt, lined with trash and populated by beggars and roaming chickens. For lunch we had a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions and then a main course of fish; grilled sardines, grilled ground fish with spices, deep-fried calamari and another larger grilled fish which I couldn't identify.

Both the souk and market (and Salé in general) provided a look into the other side of Morocco. Unlike Rabat which has a much more cosmopolitan feel and is clearly the center of power and government, Salé is much more laid back, with less bustle and plainer streets and buildings. Salé (or at least the parts I visited) also seemed to have less of a wealth disparity. Although there are clearly differences in wealth, people tend to shop in the same places, eat the same food, wear the same clothes and sit in the same cafés, something which is certainly not reflected in Rabat

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

God, Country, King

Dear blog followers:

As always my life has been quite busy since I last bared my soul to the nebuluous domains of cyberspace.

This past week I was fortunate enough to consume an improperly canned tin of sardines which caused me to break out into a set of hives large and extensive enough that my Rastafari Moroccan friend, Aziz, was extremely perturbed and insisted I visit a pharmacy. Upon arrival at the pharmacy, the hives which had now spread from my arms to my legs, back and stomach, were severe enough that the pharmacist informed that I would need to visit a hospital. After a fifteen minute IV administered by the able staff of the Clinique des Nations Unies I was fully recovered and had a newfound lack of available funds, a common side effect of quality medical care even in developing nations.

This weekend was also the IES-organized trip to the Sahara. Departing from Rabat we were treated to an exhuasting bus ride over increasingly winding and bumpy roads which crossed the Atlas mountains (stopping to view some monkies) and ending at a upscale tourist resort whose luxurious pool is apparently featured prominently in a number of Moroccan music videos (Lonely Planet-Morocco, "Xaluca," 2006) and was replete with all the necessities of a tourist trap-cum-resort trying to make it on the Orientalist circuit; Moroccan attendents swathed in robes, sedated camels being led around for pictures and pettings, "Berber" tents for poolside loungers to escape the ravages of the desert sun, wandering musicians banging drums as local women extravagently attired sensually gyrated their hips and, most essentially, hordes of middle aged european tourists wearing semi-casual and largely unflattering attire designed for comfortable and practical travel.

We, the only group of guests with an average age below forty, spent a most relaxing and enjoyable night in this opulent and extravagent oriental compound of wonders. And after enjoying a continental-style buffet breakfast departed to the town of Erfoud, a short and bumpy bus ride away. In Erfoud we all purchased the traditional blue scarves of the Saharawi (the people who live in the Sahara) in which to wrap our heads against the brutal sunlight and stinging sand. We also visited a number of small villages in the environs of Erfoud, stopping in each to pay a visit to the local school to combat adult and female illiteracy, become objects of fascination for the local children and eat dates right off of the trees (the area around Erfoud is famous for its dates).

Around four our trip moved into its second phase as we all donned our scarves and mounted long lines of camels to be led into the desert to our camp. Riding a camel is like riding one of those rides for children outside of a supermarket only it lasts for hours and the animal which you are riding is ten feet tall. Camels, unlike other animals such as dogs or even horses, don't seem to enjoy human attention and generally adopt a somewhat apathetic attitude characterized by periods of slight annoyment. Aside from that the camel ride was beautiful, exotic and enjoyable (magical!). Upon arrival at camp I and a few of my IES chums decided to climb the gigantic dune behind our campsite, which turned out to be much larger than we had thought and resulted in an exhausting hourlong climb. The view from the top was astounding as you realized the vastness of the desert as well as the uniform chaos of the dunes below you. With the moon rising over what we were informed was Algeria it made quite a sight.

The rest of our trip largely revolved around sitting in a bus on the way back to Rabat. I will add however that one of the most interesting subjects to be brought up on the trip was the motto of Morocco - Allah, WaDhan, Malik- God, Country, King. For those of you who are familiar with post-colonial identity politics it no doubt has already struck you that the two main unifying national symbols of Morocco are included in this motto; Islam and the Monarchy, both of which are said to transcend the numerous ethnic, linguistic and class differences of the country. It is also notable that these three words denote the "red lines" or issues which the Moroccan media is not allowed (by law) to dicuss or even mention in passing; Islam, the Western Sahara and the Monarchy. This motto is cut, painted or burned into numerous hillsides, rocks and roadside barriers all along Morocco's highways. Symbols of unity -real or invented - which show not only a historical legacy of les colonisés but also a desire for stability and a rejection of the divisive ethno-politics which have plagued Morocco's Maghribi and Sub-Saharan neighbors.

As a final note, my appartment now has hot water, desks, a stove and kitchen utensils. Inchallah, by the end of the week we will have a refrigerator, a portrait of the King and wireless internet.