September 29, 2005
I arrived in port town of Essaouira just past noon. When I stepped foot in the Place Moulay Hassan I could see the seagulls swarming over the port angling for leftover fish. The ramparts loomed hazily in the background. On the other side, cafes lined the square, the tables and chairs set up for people watching. I shouldered my bag and made my way down the narrow streets of the medina towards my hotel. I didn't like what I saw.
As I left to look for other accomodations, a boy walked up to me. "Want to see hotel," he asked. "100 Dirham. Sea view." At the bus station, people lined up to meet the buses, touting various hotels. I had nothing to lose, and said "Sure." He lead me around the corner to his aunt's house. Climbing the stairs, he showed me a small garret room, barely wide enough to fit the single bed. A window at the foot of the bed looked out over the Skala de la Ville towards the ocean. I told him I'd take it.
I didn't do much in Essaouira; there wasn't much to do. I planned my meals and wandered the town. I took photos of the seagulls and fishermen at the port. That afternoon, I picked a fish out from that day's catch and had it grilled and served with bread right by the docks. As I left, the waiter said to remember his booth. "Number four," he told me. "Number four," I repeated. I looked at the lobster. "Maybe tonight?" he said. I was noncommittal. "Maybe."
That night I watched the sun set from the terrace of my guesthouse. People had gathered on the ramparts below, straddling the 18th century cannons or just sitting on the walls of the fortifications. A haze lingered on the horizon, and the sun slowly disappeared into the fog, a white disc slowly turning red.
I ate dinner in a small restaurant set on the first floor of a residential building. The chef, a former sous chef of the Villa Maroc, had set up shop in this tiny dining room. That night, each setting was booked, and the maitre d' had to turn people away at the door. I ordered the eggplant salad and a chicken cous cous with carmelized onions and dates. It was the best cous cous I had had in Morocco. I ate at a low table. The room slowly filled with tourists and appetizers and tagines made their way around the room.
I ate at the Villa Maroc the next night, a hotel/restaurant comprised of two 18th century homes. I had made a reservation in the afternoon and when I arrived my table was already set for one. The tables were set in rooms around the central courtyard of the riad or in other nooks and crannies dotting the floors. A candle burned on the table, and bread and olives had already been placed on the tablecloth. I had ordered the fish baked with oranges and lime. It was tasty, but not as inventive as the food served at Restaurant Feradous. But what the food might have lacked, the restaurant more than made up in ambiance.
The morning I left, I woke early and bought bread from the baker downstairs. Merchants were collecting their orders as they arrived on bicycles or with carts, filling their baskets with bread. I bought two loaves fresh from the oven; they burnt my fingers. I ate breakfast on the terrace as the sun rose above the ramparts, coloring the breaking waves rose.
The bus for Casablanca was late, and the journey dragged as we made detours for Safi and El Jedida. When we finally arrived in Casa, it was under cover of night. Traffic was snarled coming into the center of town and it took almost an hour to get from the edge of town to the station. It's my last stop before heading back to Paris, having come full circle. And as I sat in traffic, thinking of my arrival, I could see in the distance the minaret of the Hassan II mosque glowing on the horizon, a beam fixed for Mecca at its apex.
September 26, 2005
Marrakech and more
As Paul Bowles once remarked, the Djemma el-Fna is what separates Marrakech from all other Moroccan cities. Dominating the heart of the medina, almost in the shadow of the Koutoubia mosque's minaret, a constantly evolving show plays out every day. Orange juice sellers line the square, calling out to passersby. Snake charmers wail on their nasal horns as men dressed in white beat drums and dance nearby, holding out their hats for tips. In the evenings, food stalls are set up, selling brochettes, tagines, and couscous. One corner offers sheep's head soup. Another offers escargots.
My first night in Marrakech, I was enchanted by the display as I stood amongst the smokey stalls and breathed it all in. Men cajoled me to sit down. As I waved them off, they would point to the number of their stall and ask me to remember them. I resisted until a boy pointed to his sign. "Number one," he called out. "The best!" I ordered a couscous and a Fanta. He popped the top off the bottle with a knife. It sailed in the air and I listened to it as it landed somewhere in the square.
Another night I ascended to a terrasse overlooking the square. Drinks were self-service; a cooler stood by the entrance and you were expected to buy before they would let you in. Camera-toting tourists jostled for position, photographing the scene, each holding an unopened bottle of water. I purchased my bottle and joined them, lucking into a table by the railing. I sat and caught up in my journal, watching the sun set over a group of acrobats who had garnered the largest audience that night.
I stayed in a riad just off the square, a lovely house with room surrounding two courtyards. The receptionist recognized me; it was she who took my reservation. After she checked me in she remarked that our birthdays were but a day apart. Later I asked her to help me purchase some cds and she took me to some local malls where she picked some out and shopped for other things for herself.
I told her that the riad would be a lovely place for a small wedding and she said that when I was to wed I should come back. I said that was probably in the distant future, to which she replied that I should have been married four years ago. Thirty is a good time to get married, she said.
In the evenings, after a days wandering through the souks or to the various gardens dotting the city (the Jardin Marjorelle was a favorite, though innundated by bus tourists; the bane of Morocco. The enclosed Museum of Islamic Art was also a standout; perhaps my favorite museum in Morocco.) I would return to the riad to rest. I almost didn't want to leave. At one point I mentioned to L--- that had I the money I'd love to buy a set of wooden and silver engraved doors. She said that they would cost as much to send home as to buy, and that had I the money I should buy a house in Marrakech in which to install them. I told her I didn't think I could suffer the 50 degree Celcius heat of the summers.
In the riad I met a Japanese woman who works for a wholesaler in Tokyo. They take orders from boutiques around the country and have things fabricated in Africa. Her area is Morocco. The day after meeting her I ran into her in the leather souks. She was waiting as a craftsman was finishing a shoe to her client's specifications. She was leaving the next day and there were bags of samples in his shop for her to take back. They bade me take a seat and watch. I was fascinated. Soon, another man came over from which she had requested a table. They haggled over the price, but he didn't have the materials. She said she'd contact him again next time. I could have stayed there forever, but decided to let them get back to work and took my leave.
The ride from Ouarzazate through the mountains to Marrakech was breathtaking. Narrow roads wound their way up and then down through the passes. Buses and trucks would pull to the side to let climbing traffic through. There were but seven people on the bus from Ouarzazarte, and half of them seemed to know each other. The bus stopped for apples being sold by the side of the road at one point, and soon the bus was full of the smell as they were shared amongst the passengers.
I am now in the seaside town of Essouaria, where Orson Welles shot a good portion of Othello. The ramparts are pictaresque, with blue fishing boats covering the small harbor. Nearby you can buy your fish fresh and have them grill it for you, served with a side salad and a loaf of bread. A constant wind blows across the ramparts. I'm staying in someone's house. When I decided I didn't like the hotel I booked, a boy approached me and showed me a garret room in his aunt's house. The room isn't much, but the window looks out over the Skala de la Ville towards the sea. I can see the canons resting on the fortifications pointing west, towards the setting sun and home.
September 23, 2005
Ouarzazarte and the Restaurant Relais St Exupery
Ouarzazarte has two claims to fame. One is the seven day Marathon des Sables, a seven day race through the desert that begins and ends in this desert town. Runners carry everything they need with them for the seven days, including provisions and tents. In one day alone they run 78 km. The other is the Atlas Studios, where parts of Kundun, Kingdom of Heaven, and Asterix and Obelix were filmed among countless Cleopatra films. One afternoon I took the kitschy but fun tour of the studios. The jet plane prop from The Jewel of the Nile had seen better days. It was parked right in front of the Tibetan temple built for Kundun.
That morning I had gone to Ait Benadou, a ruined and then restored kasbah some 30km from town, which has been used in films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator. It took a series of grand taxis to arrive, and when I was done I was somewhat stranded for transportation. I waited in the sun with two Moroccan women and one Moroccan man for a passing taxi or car to pick us up. Tourists drove by. One couple smiled and waved. The man turned to me. "Tourists no good," he said.
Then a passing Frenchman stopped. He said he was heading all the way back to Ouarzazarte, and opened the doors of his van to us. When we arrived, I offered to pay him. He waved my offer away with a smile. The Moroccan women laughed at my attempt and smiled and said goodbye.
My first afternoon in Ouarzazarte I ate at the Restaurant Relais St Exupery on the edge of town. The cafe is decorated with aviation photos and memorabilia of the Little Prince in homage to the author and pilot who was sometimes based there. I was the only guest.
I had come to lunch for the cheaper set menu, but once my eyes looked over the other options, I cast that menu aside for trout from the Atlas mountains in Amadine sauce with three types of rice (saffron, pilaf, and natural). Jean Pierre asked if I liked oysters. I said yes. The waitress brought the amuse bouche, puff pastries with pate and tomato paste.
Next came a fish soup that tasted as though it was flown in from Brittany, and then the raw oysters on the half shell. I never thought I would have eaten such food in the desert, and when I told Catherine, she commented that that was pretty adventurous. Then came the trout, deliciously prepared with three small boules of rice. Once I had cleaned my plate of the fish, the waitress offered me a shot of alcohol made from figs to cleanse my palette before serving a slice of bread with Berber cheese infused with saffron. I practically licked my knife.
For dessert, I chose Jean Pierre's recommendation, the Tazlida. Four small slices of Berber biscuit cakes made with figs, almonds, and hazelnut infused with orange flour floated in fresh cream, a dollop of chocolate on each and in between, forming a nine square pattern. It was heavenly.
As I paid the bill I asked how much he would sell a toothpick holder for. They were white emblazoned with a blue drawing of the Little Prince under which was written "a Ouarzazarte." He apologized but said he couldn't sell any. The person who made his porcelain has since retired, and what he has is all he has left.
At the door, I told him that it was the best meal that I had had in Morocco. I told him I might be back the next day. He laughed as I said, "A demain."
And though I debated going back, I did. For the pigeon pastilla, perfectly seasoned with sugar and cinnamon so as not to overwhelm the tender meat. That meal began with a cool cucumber gazpacho seasoned with chili, and a Moroccan salad comprised of eggplant and two small rounds of tomato and onion chopped together and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Fantastic.
September 20, 2005
Do you want to buy a carpet? Well, not really, but . . .
I bought a rug. I hadn't meant to but there I was in a woman's workshop in Tinehir and she had just unfurled a rug unlike any other I had seen. It was a simple design, dyed red with henna and gold with saffron, consisting of four squares near each of the corners of the rug. I flipped through some of the rugs and asked some prices. They were far lower than had been quoted in other parts of Morocco. I began to bargain.
It had taken four forms of transport to arrive in Tinehir from the desert. That morning I had taken a camel back to the village of Mezourga, then a motorbike to the town center to catch a taxi to Rissani. From there it was another taxi to Erford where we caught a local bus headed for Tinehir. It took forever.
Tinehir proved to be a cute town with an interesting mellah unmentioned in the tour books. A man who worked at my hotel glommed onto me when I was walking by and said he'd show me the market; he was on his way home anyway. I had nothing to do and followed.
The market was split into the women's and the men's market and we walked through one and then the other and then dove into the mellah proper, with its mud buildings and dark passages. We arrived in a large square surrounded by buildings and he told me that that was there they celebrated weddings. I told him I had the sneaking suspicion that I was on a tour, and he said no, that I was free to go anytime. I had a suspicion we'd end in a shop, but I was fascinated and continued to follow. Then he told me his aunt was an artist.
Oh, I asked. What kind of an artist? "She's a weaver," he said. "I can show you if you like. She weaves rugs and merchants come to buy from Fes, from Marrakech, from big cities. You want to see?" I couldn't help it. I said yes.
He lead me to her house and I was determined not to buy. She showed me how they spun the wool from sheep into thread, and then how they spun that thread into even finer thread. Then she showed me the carpets. Made from sheeps wool, from camel wool (Rare, he told me. They only shave wool from camels once every three years and only from the breast and the back), and from cactus silk. I was entranced, and before I knew it she was wrapping up the rug and I was walking home happily with it tucked under my arm.
On the way back to the hotel the man told me that his aunt teaches weaving to whomever wants to learn. She charges girls nothing, and they come from all the nearby villages. "So," I asked, "if I wanted to move to Tinehir to learn she would teach me for free?" "No," he said. "It's woman's work." "So if my sister was interested?" I asked. "Of course," he said.
September 18, 2005
Last night, I sat atop a dune in the desert sands of Erg Chebi and watched as the full moon crested red on the horizon. As it rose, it turned a deep orange, becoming more and more pale as it ascended, clearing the sky of stars. I slept outside, spying satelites and shooting stars. In the morning, the sun rise from between two dunes as the moon set full behind me. It was magic.
After leaving Fes, I spent a few nights in Meknes, a town known for its mausoleum to Mouley Ismail and its proximity to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. I was stunned by the plaza before the gates to the royal palace. The gates dominated one side while the medina crouched on the other. Tour buses paused to let tourists off to take photos. Horse drawn carriages waited for tourists travelling on their own wanting to see the nearby graineries.
I spent a morning at Volubilis. The city is in an advanced state of disrepair, but the site is known more for its mosaics. As I toured the different houses and looked at them, I was brought back to Madba in Jordan, and I wondered that I could be seeing similar artwork from the same civilization so spread apart.
To break the journey to Mezourga and into the desert, I stopped over in Midelt, suspended on a barren plain between the High and Middle Atlas. As the bus left Meknes and rose into the alpine scenery, I spotted Barbary apes lingering in the shade before we descended towards the rocky plains. I was amazed at how quickly the landscape changed out the window.
In Midelt I did nothing. The town suffers a lack of tourists and I was followed by seemingly everyone in town, asking me to eat at their restaurant or look at the souvenirs in their shops. When they learned I was headed towards Mezourga, they suggested various auberges and guesthouses. When I told them I had a reservation they suggested I break it. La shukran, I said, smiling, and went on my way.
I took the bus down into the desert. It stopped in Rissani and I walked to the center of town to catch a minibus to the village of Mezourga. Built out of mud walls, the village sits at the foot of the ergs. I arrived and met a group of people travelling together who were on their way out to the dunes. I decided to stay in town and rest from the days of travelling and leave the next day. I bid them adieu, had a delicious tagine, and went to bed.
In the morning, they returned, all smiles. The moon was bright, their butts were sore. We ate breakfast together before they set off for the Todrah Gorge and I read for the afternoon.
At five, I was brought to my camel and we set off into the desert. Hassan lead our train on foot as we crested and then sauntered back down the dunes. We were silent as if in tacit agreement not to speak as we listened to the sounds of the camel's hoofs in the sand.
After an hour and a half, I was sore, but we had arrived at our camp, shaded by one of the larger dunes. It was too late to watch the sun set, but the light was still good and so we wandered nearby, touching the sand with my bare feet. I sat on a dune and let the fine grains run through my fingers. And then the moon rose, and I shouted out to the others to look east towards the horizon.
We ate by candlelight. The moon was well above the horizon, and already a pale blue, headed towards white. When the candle burned out, we didn't need to light another. From a nearby camp, the sound of drums could be heard and after dinner the Quebecois couple I had come with went to check it out. I wandered over the dunes, admiring the patterns cast by moon shadows.
In the morning we broke camp early. The sun was bright, but cool, and a breeze blew the sand like mist off the peaks. We rode back again in silence, listening to the wind and the sound of the camels on the sand, the sun at our backs, and civilization ahead.
September 14, 2005
One last night in the hammam
Last night the hammam was running late. Women were lingering, and a group of men had started to gather by the door. I missed the signs when I arrived and almost pushed through the double wooden doors into the changing area before a man caught me. "About ten minutes," he told me. I took a seat by the door. The man who performs massages asked me again if I wanted a massage. "Massage good!" he cried. "Massage strong!" I declined and smiled.
Soon Omar, the ticket attendant arrived. He greeted the regulars, shaking hands. Arabit, the luggage attendant then arrived, exchanging another round of greetings. They called into the hammam to see how much longer it would be. A woman cried out. A few straglers emerged and then the female attendant. The men rushed in.
When I left I told Omar and Arabit that I was leaving for Meknes. They wished me well and Godspeed on my travels. Omar asked my address and I gladly gave it to him. "I'll write you," he said. I told him I'd look forward to it.
The night was overcast, but when I returned to my hotel I lingered on the roof looking out over the square. Ice cream sellers had set up their machines, petit taxis lingered in their queue. Next door, the shell of a five star hotel slumbered. Construction had started just four months ago; they're hoping to open in two more.
Fes on a weekday is decidedly different than Fes on a Sunday, and the Fes I left was a different Fes than the one I first encountered. On weekdays, the town seems to slumber, resting before the next market day. In the morning I wandered the medina briefly, but then left preferring to remember it as a place teeming with people. It didn't seem right to disturb the medina as it slept.
September 12, 2005
En route to Fes I stayed one night in Chefchaouen, a pictaresque and post-card ready town in the Rif mountains. The medina is whitewashed and painted turquoise; the effect is charming. The square is lined with cafes catering mainly to tourists, but a few local tea shops squeeze their plastic tables and chairs amongst the wooden tables with tablecloths meant for travellers.
I ate lunch on a rooftop terrace overlooking the square and the surrounding mountains. A cool breeze blew through the terrace. Afterwards I wandered the small town, taking the time to walk to a nearby mosque overlooking the valleys and back towards the town.
The next morning I was up early to catch the seven a.m. bus to Fes. At ten till, a local bus ambled into the bus station, and my backpack was thrust unceremoniously underneath. We were on our way. The bus wound its way through the mountain roads, up into and then suddenly out of the clouds. The sun suddenly shone brightly in the sky and out the windows I couldn't see the valley for the clouds. The highest peaks jutted out through the billowing white cover. The effect was magical.
As the bus continued through the mountains, hours passed, and the clouds dissipated. The mountains dropped off into towns and villages, tiny dots covering the slopes. I dozed as we picked up and dropped off passengers.
Afer five hours we were still in the mountains. The receptionist at the hotel in Fes said it would take only about five hours to get to Fes, but we were still over 100 kilometers away. The scenery was breathtaking, however, and I didn't mind the extra kilometers and hours.
Two hours later we rolled into Fes, a city rising out of a landscape of rolling brown fields. I walked into the medina and found my pensione. I took the cheapest room. The receptionist said there was no shower, but I could use the nearby hammam. She walked me up to my room on the top floor, a small but charming adode with a washbasin and toilet at the foot of the bed. Windows overlooked the street.
Yesterday, I experienced the first great day of my trip, as I lost myself in the medina (the largest in the world) and discovered beautifully restored medressi, overflowing souks, and many mosques dotting the streets and alleys. Twice I was almost overrun by donkeys carrying their loads. At one point, standing at a confluence of roads, an olive seller asked me what I was looking for. "Nothing, really," I said. I was just walking around. "That's good," he said. "It's the best way to find something!" He laughed.
In the morning I sought out the tanneries, in the northwest corner of the medina, stopping to look at various sights along the way. The stench of the place let me know I was near, and I paid a guardienne for the priviledge of walking down to the floor. He lead me up to a series of terraces just above the workers. I was fascinated, watching as they stood knee deep in the 800 year old tubs to dye the leather skins. I stood transfixed. The guard got into an argument with a shop seller standing on a terrace above. When I asked what they argued about, he told me the shop owner wanted him to lead me to his shop when I was done.
I could have watched the workers all day, but the guard asked me if I had seen enough, suggesting it was time to move on. He then lead me to a higher terrace looking over the dye pools and the limestone pools used for curing before leading me back to the main streets.
For lunch I sought out a palace restaurant hidden below the Palace Jamai. The street was deserted; there were no signs. A man sat in a doorway and asked if I were looking for something. I was about to reply in the negative until I looked above his head. I had found the restaurant. "Come in, come in," he said, flipping a switch. The lights turned on amidst a flurry of activity. I was the only guest.
I was offered a set menu of three courses and was asked to choose between a Moroccan soup or a salad. I had difficulty deciding, finally settling on the soup. I sat down, and Hasnaa brought over a pitcher of water and a brass pail with a tray set above it. She poured the water over my hands into the tray and then offered me a towel with which to dry them.
She then surprised me with a small bowl of soup ("To try," she said). She served it with Moroccan squid. She said I should take a little piece of squid and eat it with the soup. The squid was deep fried and slightly caramelized. With the soup it was delicious.
She then brought out the salad, comprised of potatos, green peppers, eggplant, olives, zucchini, and lentils. She also offered a small pastilla. "You eat it with your hands," she said pointing to the triangular pastilla. I was in heaven, devouring everything before me, but trying to pace myself. I still had a cous cous with seven vegetables on its way.
By the time the cous cous arrived I was stuffed. I ate slowly, listening to the Andalucian music they played over the loudspeakers, finally making a bargain with myself to eat at least all the vegetables. As I neared the end of the meal, Hasnaa brought me a plate of grapes and mint tea. With the tea she placed a small plate of sesame biscuits. The tea brought out the taste of the biscuits, and I happily munched them as I sipped my tea, soaking in the atmosphere of the restaurant. I knew that this quiet place of rest was deep within the teeming medina, and that soon I would again let myself be pulled along by the tides of humanity within.
September 9, 2005
Tetouan was not unlike the Hotel California. With kids offering hashish in dark corners and the streets a winding maze, it truly felt that you could check out any time you liked but you could never leave.
I arrived in the morning on a bus from Tangier. The hotel had lost my reservation and pointed me in a vague direction towards other hotels. I walked the Blvd Mohammed V, its cobblestone street blocked off by temporary gates. Peopled walked along the street anyway, and that evening it became a veritable pedestrian mall.
Trying various hotels I ended up at the Hotel A----, run by a Moroccan woman named Aziza. She spoke Spanish; I spoke French. I registered and paid for the room and thanked her in Arabic.
After a shower and a change, I dove into the medina, passing the royal palace. Later I learned that the king was in residence, which explained the heightened security. The main plaza in front of the palace was blocked off, and police patrolled the area and the medina.
The old quarter was a jumble of white washed buildings, main thoroughfares, and alleyways. I let myself be drawn into the rivers of people wandering through and soon found myself at the main gate, next to the palace. Diving back in I let the current take me to the eastern gate, passing various souks selling leather, wood carvings, clothes, and jewellry. Village women crouched in corners selling cactus fruits.
That night I wandered the streets of the new quarter, between the Place Hassan II and the Place Moulay el-Mehdi. In the Place Moulay el-Mehdi a fountain was lit with colored lights. An Arabic soundtrack accompanied the display. I ate in a sandwich shop, packed with groups of people before returning to my hotel. I stood on the terasse and looked down upon the throngs. Aziza appeared with a youngish man in tow. His skin was drawn too tightly across his face and he spoke in the manner of people who have learned English but have not had the chance to practice; he spoke but never listened.
He told me he was there for the first time; he lived in Rabat. He was there to do interviews for the radio. He asked me what I thought of Morocco and asked me why I thought there was little tourism. I said that I thought there was supposed to be a lot. Just two million, he said. Nothing compared to Turkey or Spain. I told him maybe it was the cost of flying there, which seemed to be what he wanted to hear.
He told me he had taken two years of English but didn't continue his studies. He said the majority of Moroccans didn't like to lear. He said after university there were no jobs. He asked if I were out on the terasse earlier reading a book. I said I was and he seemed pleased. It's good to read. He said, "I have the spare time and the money but I don't have the motivation to learn more English." I said one requires a reason.
Night had long fallen. A crescent moon rose above the town. The mountain air had grown cold and I clutched my arms, shivering. I was stilll in a t-shirt. He bent down to tie his laces and I apologized. It's cold, I said. And I have an early bus to catch. He held out his hand and asked my name. We introduced ourselves and I retired to bed, the sounds from the street rising dimly to my room.
September 7, 2005
Tangier in the rain
It's raining in Tangier. I had planned to spend the day at the Cap Spartel on the northwesternmost corner of the country. It's known for its views of the Atlantic, but under overcast skies, I decided it wasn't worth the effort.
I'm staying at the Hotel el-Muniria, just off one of the main roads. The Beats stayed there on their visits, and Burroughs is said to have written Naked Lunch in Room number 9. I poked around; they must have renumbered the rooms, for Room 9 no longer exists. From my window I have a view of the beach down below and the bay. In the evenings, a nearby mosque sounds the call to prayer amid the din of bars and nightclubs.
Yesterday I awoke at 5 to catch the bus up from Casablanca. The supposed six hour journey took closer to seven as the bus was delayed. When I arrived, touts approached for one reason and another and I waved them off, telling them I had a reservation. After a shower and change, I wandered off towards the medina, stopping at the Terasse des Paresseux for its view over the town to the Strait of Gibraltar.
A man pointed out a nearby hotel as the best in the city. I responded in French. When he asked me where I was from I told him I was from China and responded to his requests in Chinese. He spoke in English and asked if I spoke French. "Un petit peu," I said as I took my leave. He looked at me. "I think you speak better English than you speak French." I said goodbye in Chinese.
In the medina, the American Legation museum was closed for a tv shoot. I turned down a side alley to avoid another tout and soon found myself lost. All roads lead to the Petit Socco, however, and I soon found my bearings. I wandered north in search of lunch, finding my restaurant of choice between seatings. They would reopen at 8 for dinner. I walked to the northern ramparts of the medina and stolled along the battlements, looking out over the Straits towards Spain.
Back in the medina I wandered past the kasbah, which housed a closed museum, and then back through the narrow alleyways until I found myself again at the Petit Socco. Returning to the new city, I found the place I had chosen for dinner closed and finally settled on a quick sandwich. Walking back towards my hotel, I walked through a mall and up a back stairs to a beautiful tea salon overlooking the Terasse and settled in for a mint tea and a patisserie. Both were excellent. The clientele was entirely Moroccan, and I sat and listened to Arabic pop music while I wrote letters and finished my dessert.
Tomorrow, I head to Tetouan, to explore an ancient medina that's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's only an hour or two away, and I'm excited to sample its Spanish influence. Today it's a quiet day, which is welcome after two days of before-dawn travel. The internet is cheap, the hotel is pleasant, and the patisseries are delicious.
September 5, 2005
Play it, Sam
This evening I sat at the Restaurant Ramses and watched the sun set and the people walk by. My table was just off the sidewalk, overlooking the Place des Nations Unies. The Blvd Houphouet Boigny runs from the northern end, and I had to laugh at the name. The Place was packed with cars; the sidewalks were packed with people. I ordered a chicken sandwich and an Orangina. I ended up with an orange Fanta that was too sweet and a sandwich that was surprisingly good.
I arrived in Casablanca near noon, taking the bus from the airport. The trains were running late, but the bus proved fortunate. It stopped in the center of town. Finding the hotel was quick if not particularly easy; few streets were signposted. But I saw the marquee of the cinema Rialto and knew the hotel was near.
I wasn't that excited about visiting Morocco until I saw a huge poster for Marrakech hanging on the wall at the airport. Suddenly I knew where I was headed, and then, settling into my seat on the plane, I fell asleep dreaming of my first glimpse of Africa.
Years ago I hadn't expected my introduction to Africa to remind me of the Middle East. As I wandered the streets and the Medina, I had visions of Beirut and of Turkey. It was familiar territory (albeit looking somewhat more modern) and I put away the guidebook to lose myself in the streets and alleyways until I stumbled upon the Cafe Maure and feasted on a delicious fish tagine. I sat in a courtyard set behind the ancient embattlements of the medina and settled in to the city. I wrote in my journal and contemplated my route. Sade lulled me into my surroundings.
Tomorrow I am taking the 6.30 am bus to Tagiers, to what I imagine to be the true start of my journey.
September 4, 2005
I arrived in Paris on Friday afternoon. In the airport in Amsterdam I met a Laotian girl returning from a month in America. She had a perfect French manicure and pedicure. She said it was her first time in the country and wanted to move there. She was born in France and had lived just outside Paris all her life, in Orly. I said that I loved Paris; she said it was small. Manhattan is small, I countered. She had been staying with an aunt in New Jersey and made trips from there. To Florida, to California, to New York. She said she ate in a Vietnamese and a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown. When I asked what her aunt did, she said she owned a nail shop. No wonder you have such nice nails, I said. She laughed.
I arrived at Nicolas' apartment near five. He lives in a street just off the Place de Republique. The location is fantastic. The apartment was empty. Copies of Guillemette's book lay in a corner. Her exploded luggage lay on the floor of the study. I showered and changed and went off in search of lunch.
I walked towards the center of the city, finding my way with the Paris Pratique from 1989, and discovered that much of Paris was surprisingly familiar. As I passed churches and other landmarks, I remembered them from my first visit, when I bought the blue book of maps. I soon found myself near the Isle de la Cite, and remembering Berthillon, I skipped lunch and had mango and blood orange sorbet. The blood orange was to die for. And, finding myself so close to Notre Dame, I crossed the bridge and soon found myself before its facade. The sun had begun to set, and the stone glowed orange in the fading light.
I sat and opened my journal, remembering the first time I sat before the cathedral and the gypsy women who patrolled the square. I had passed through the Place des Voges, and was surprised at the amount of people out enjoying the afternoon. It was a far cry from the deserted area I remembered from that February in 1989.
I began walking back to Nicolas, and stumbled upon a Brasilian festival housed in a small covered area. I asked how much admission was. Gratuit, said the attendant as he ushered me in. I stayed to listen to the band before hunger got the betteer of me, and I found a nearby cafe where I ate a small sandwich.
The next morning I arrived at the hotel at 11.30. Kit's train from London had come in at 11.15, and I settled to wait. I napped. She hadn't arrived by 1.30 and so I was getting ready to call her when she knocked on the door. Her sense of direction had pointed her the wrong way and it took her an hour to find the hotel from the metro stop. It's actually not much more than 5 minutes away. She freshened up and we left in search of lunch. Debating on a direction, I mentioned that I was planning on going to Sacre Coeur when I returned in October. Kit said it was one of her favorite places in Paris and so we set off for the 18th Arrondissement, stopping for salads along the way.
When we arrived, I started humming the theme song to Amelie. I hated that movie, Kit said, as I cheerfully hummed along. It looks much bigger in the movies, I said. Of course, she said. He shot with a wide angle lens. The square was packed. We walked up and into the church and then I asked if she had ever climbed to the top of the dome. She said she didn't know it was possible.
We wandered to the western wall of the church to a small door. A machine sold tickets; a boy stood beside it to show people how it worked. I commented to Kit that they were trying to be all modern with the machine, but the boy might as well have sold tickets for all the difficulty the machine offered.
We climbed and climbed and then soon had a breathtaking view of Paris beneath us. As we walked around the dome we could see Notre Dame, the Pantheon, the Musee D'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower. A breeze cooled the narrow walkway and we lingered over the view.
Back down, we wandered south, heading back towards the center of the city towards Le Printemps. Kit was looking for CDs, and we arrived just as they were closing. From there we cut through the Tuilleries and then down by the Seine towards St. Germain de Pres, where Kit had remembered a nice area of restaurants. As we walked by the river, the sun set behind us. Tourist boats plied the water and people dangled their feet over the edge. On the Pont des Arts, picnickers gathered on either side, some with baguettes and fruit, some with tartes they had brought from home. Kit said next time we'd self-cater and bring our own blankets to sit and eat and watch the sunset from the bridge.
In St. Germain de Pres, the restaurants were packed. We finally found a seat and finally sat down after walking all day. Our feet were aching. After dinner, we wandered back towards Notre Dame and found a cafe where we could sit and eat dessert and watch the crowds walk by. A group of French biker boys sat beside us making catcalls to all the women who passed.
By then it was getting late and we set off after our creme brulee and tarte tatin for the hotel. Kit hadn't slept the night before, and I knew jet lag would hit me hard today. This morning we met a friend of hers for brunch and then she left for London on the Eurostar. Now I have to pack and get ready to leave for Casablanca. My flight is at nine a.m.
September 1, 2005
Guillemette just called to tell me she's leaving Paris for New Orleans. Catherine and Pia have already left and she knew it was just a matter of time before she'd be asked to cover the story. At first she was trying to delay her departure until Sunday, but her editor asked her if she could leave now. She's on her way home to buy a ticket and prepare. Her party is now off, but she's thinking of rescheduling it to the first weekend in October when I come back from Morocco. I told her to stay safe. She said she'd leave me a bike.