Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Hi, all - It's been a while since I have written, and now lots of things have happened. I went on vacation to Spain & Morocco, with my high school era buddy, Ed. Then, I went to Taiwan for work (new job!), where I am, currently. I'll be back in Oregon for a couple of weeks in May, and then back to Taiwan until the end of March, 2006, if everything goes according to plan. Yes, things change quickly, sometimes. . .

This write-up is about our little (6+ day - we flew in on April 1st and out on April 7th) trip to Morocco.

Short version:
Morocco looks like a mixture of Arizona, Utah, and southern California. The food & eating style (with hands (no utensils), seated on the floor, or maybe on a sofa-like cushion) & tea (green tea + mint + tons of sugar, poured from a great distance from the glass) are just like at the Moroccan restaurant (Marrakesh) that we have in Portland, Oregon. The languages are (for many of the people that we met): first, Berber (3 different dialects), second, Arabic, and third, French. A distant fourth comes Spanish or English. . . The clothes are varied from very chic western styles to the saharan turbans & cloaks. The people are, as everywhere we've been, fantastic. And yes, we have friends there, now, whom we'll want to go back and visit.

(very) Long version:
Ed (high school era buddy) and I went for another trip, this time to Spain, to visit a high school friend of his that he'd newly reconnected with, and to see some of Morocco. As you might know, I'm not big in the planning department when it comes to vacations, and the most I did was talk via telephone to a Moroccan the day before leaving. Ed, as usual, did a little more - looked at web sites and determined, roughly, what we should do with our 6+ days, there, but somewhat unusually, did not actually book anything except our tickets to Marrakesh. Our desire was to go hike in the mountains & gorges, and visit the sand dunes of the Sahara. He had 3 places circled on the map. We flew to Marrakesh and the fun began.

We knew that French was the "main" language - what we didn't know is that it was actually, in most cases, people's THIRD language. One of the 3 Berber languages being number 1, Arabic number 2, and French number 3. If people went on for a fourth language, Spanish or English might be that language. Ed and I know NO French, Arabic, nor Berber. We try to fake French with using Spanish words and only pronouncing half of the word or diving into my Berlitz French phrase book. Anyway, we managed to hire a taxi for the bus station, and using Ed's Lonely Planet guide, my French phrase book, broken Spanish and English, and a lot of sign language communicated our destination & negotiated the price. For some unknown reason, the taxi driver didn't drop us off directly at the bus station. He waved his hand in the general direction of the bus station - "over there, to the right" his wave, body language, and, indubitably, his French, said. We started walking in that general direction. On our journey to find the bus station (we could only see food market stalls), a young man approached Ed asking him where he was headed, in English. Ed mentioned a city name (Ed was prepared!), and the young man said that there was a bus leaving in about 20 minutes - we should follow him. We did. We expected that he'd take us to some food market of some friend, but no, he took us through a back door of the bus station to the buses, and directly to the bus for our destination. We were told to pay so much for the bus (~$7.50 each for about a 5 hour bus trip) to one man, and so much to another man for the bags that we put in the belly of the bus. It all seemed legit. The actual name of the destination was on the front of the bus. They gave us tickets for the bus in return for the money. The bus was nearly empty. Another man asked us if we had a guide. No? He has a guide friend in Ouarzazate (Pronounced "War Zah Zaht") with this (he gave it to us) phone number. He would call the man, now, and let him know that we were coming. Ok. We get on the bus and wait. Twenty minutes go by and the bus never moves. Young children came and hawked bottles of bottled water, bottles refilled with tap water (which we bought), a peanut "bar" (which we also bought), and lots of slippers and jewelry (which we didn't buy). We decided to take turns leaving the bus. Ed to take pictures, and me to find a toilet and the actual bus station. When I started to take pictures, I was told to stop by someone who look vaguely official (had on a reflective vest). I subsequently read in Ed's guide book that one shouldn't take pictures of places like military facilities, airports, and, well, bus stations. . .

Ed discovered that the bus wouldn't leave for another couple of hours, so we continued swapping wandering time. Ed bought us some oranges, and I discovered that we could go even further to a town even closer to the places where Ed had circled, and by the time Ed wanted to get there (before 8pm). We paid a little more to change the tickets. We finally left after a couple of hours. I was very tired, and tried to sleep across two seats. It just didn't work. Finally, a young man offered me his seat (using English!) at the very back of the bus. I took it, gladly, and got a somewhat good rest. When I got up, again, the landscape had turned into mountainous green terrain. It was lovely. The high snow (Atlas) mountains were visible. I started talking to the young man who'd given me his seat, and told Ed that I'd found someone who spoke English. Ed joined us in the back of the bus, and had the guy try to teach us the numbers in Arabic (which, at that time, we thought was the 1st language of the country). It was hard work, but the young man, Haytam, was very patient, and we discovered we had the same destination, so we all knew that we had hours that we'd be spending on the bus, together.

The bus stopped many times along the way to pick people up or let people off.

A couple of hours later, the bus stopped for a while. Haytam helped us to find the toilet (a squat, porcelain toilet, although unlike Asian squat toilets, this one had the foot pads in front rather than on the side, with the hole in back) for 12.5 cents, and get lunch. Tajine. It was, as we discovered, one of the roughly 4 meals that we had, over and over, and over, again. It became a joke between Ed and me. It was also when I discovered that in Morocco, also, vegetarianism is not understood very well. Haytam had ordered me some nice vegetables. The Moroccan way is to eat with your hands, using bread. Water with soap was available to wash our hands. About half-way through my meal, Haytam realized that he'd made a tiny mistake - there was "a little meat" in the center. Ed ate the lamb.

In Ouarzazate, a mob of people got onto the bus. I worried about losing my seat so I got back onto the bus. Shortly, a man came up to me, and started showing me a phone number, and somehow I realized that he was the one the man in Marrakesh had told us he would phone and tell about our arrival. I wanted to go on to the next city, but I decided that this needed discussion with Ed so we got off of the bus. I told Ed about it, and Ed wanted to stay, and go with this guy. We asked him some questions - how much would it cost to stay that night? English? What could we see? We decided to terminate our bus trip at this city, but the bus started taking off to leave! Our bags in the belly, and some stuff on the bus, itself. We asked Haytam (he was our expert in Morocco!) if we really could get off. He was confident that we could, and actually made it happen, even though we had to get onto the bus as it was moving, get our stuff through the packed bus, and then get back off. Haytam got one of the bus people to actually stop the bus so that we could get our bags out of the belly of the bus. (And, no, I didn't get a refund for the amount we paid extra to go to the next city. . .)

We waved goodbye to Haytam, and waited for our new caretaker. We were taken into what looked like someone's personal residence, but which was very nicely appointed, and were given a room with a bathroom (western style toilet, bathtub with shower, but no shower curtain - towel rack near the ceiling so that it wouldn't get wet). Everything looked sparkling and new. We were given too much dinner (Tajine), and "Berber Whiskey" which is also known as Moroccan Tea, which is startlingly sweet green tea with mint. We discussed what we wanted to see and how we could see it, and our host, Moustafa, left for a while. Ed and I discussed how much we were willing to spend on the package, and eventually, Moustafa came back, and we discussed the price. It was high. Ed bargained down, we stopped at a number that was a bit higher than we'd originally wanted, and then Moustafa gave the kicker. . . Well, he actually couldn't join us, so there would be no one who could speak English with us. Ed and I have gone the "no English" route many times under varying circumstances, but in this country where Navajo (Ed's "1st" other language) and my Chinese, German, and Ed & my combined Spanish were not even in the 1st three languages, well, that just didn't cut it for us. We'd gone with this guy SPECIFICALLY because he'd said that there would be an English speaker to guide us. I told Moustafa that that just wouldn't do. We would have continued on to the further destination had we known this. We'd already met English speakers (Haytam) and we would have had Haytam help us somehow, had we stayed on the bus. Ed and I always ask tons of questions. We couldn't accept the deal if English weren't spoken. Moustafa looked very upset, but bravely decided that ok, either he would find someone else, or he, himself, would go, in spite of a prior commitment he had. Oh, and by the way, tonight was free. Dinner and place to stay - gratis.

The next day, we had our Berber, Arabic, and French speaking driver, Houssine, and our Berber, Arabic, French, and English speaking guide, Abdulrakman, who worked with many film makers, whose job was to translate, who spoke fantastic English, much better, in fact, than Moustafa, so we were thrilled! This was going to be a GREAT trip! We spent the next several days with these guys, learning some Arabic and Berber and local culture, driving to our various destinations.

As part of our first day out, where we were going to spend the night, they provided us with a local boy, our first non-muslim who was of Jewish background, to lead us on a hike through some slot canyons and in the hills. It was fantastic. We were thrilled to be out and walking around. We went through our first village. They are made out of adobe bricks, and the old worn out buildings are side by side with the newer buildings. All made out of mud. This was definitely desert country. There was a large valley of irrigated fields and then the adobe village was built up the sides and into the mountains on the drier land.

On our 2nd full day, we were taken by a former nomad (Mohamed) through one of the huge irrigated fields, with palm trees shading it. This nomad had been all over Germany, and several other countries. He'd decided that he didn't want the nomad life at age 7. We asked him tons and tons of questions. He spoke English very well. He, our driver, and Abdulrakman decided that we could meet a still-practicing nomad family. We walked through some of the beautiful gorge (Toudraa Gorge), and then up into the hills to the nomad family. We brought them tea and sugar (for the "Berber Whiskey" that we knew we'd be served), and I tried what I thought was my thank you in Berber. It turned out that it was Arabic, and the nomad family only knew Berber, so we learned the Berber version, and the family was thrilled. There were 3 girls and 1 boy in the family, all very shy. They lived in a tent, and managed about 30 sheep and goats, 1 donkey, and 2 dogs. Mohamed, when he didn't just straight out answer our question from his own experience, translated all of our questions into Berber,and all of the family's answers into English.

That night, we were greeted by Mohamed's brother, Abdul, who still is a nomad, but who helps out in the tourist business, taking people out to be with a nomad family for a day, night, or more. He was garbed in the long cloak with a hood, which he used, that we'd been seeing all over. The 4 of them suggested that we change our itinerary to include a night out with a family, but it turned out that it was an extra expense, and we also wanted to stay in the sand dunes of the Sahara. We opted to not do it. Then Abdulrakman told us that he was fasting, which he does, during the day, for 2 days every week. These were those days, and he was concerned about getting sick because of not eating or drinking, yet being in the sand desert. He would leave us, and Abdul would take over. Abdul's English wasn't as good, and we'd formed a nice friendship with Abdulrakman, so we let him know that we were very disappointed. As we drove toward the dunes, though, with some prodding from Ed, he eventually changed his mind, and decided to continue with us, so we dropped off Abdul, and continued on. However, Abdulrakman received a phone call (both he and our driver, Houssine, had cell phones) en route that called him back to work in the film industry. We had to let him go. Houssine got onto his cell and immediately arranged to get Abdul back (by calling Abdul's brother, Mohamed, who ALSO had a cell phone). The switcheroo happened at the next town, where Abdul, his cloak gone, and looking very much like some high tech guy out of silicon valley, complete with small backpack, arrived, and Abdulrakman took off. Abdulrakman offered to have us stay at his home in Ouarzazate for our last night there. We said we'd think about it, possibly taking him up on it when we returned to that city, although we'd planned on staying in a Kasbah (a huge, multi-family adobe building) that night. We were very pleased to be invited and let him know that, and arranged to meet each other again when we returned to Ouarzazate.

We went on to the dunes, got on our camels, and rode out into the desert with a desert nomad walking leading the way, and Abdul walking along side us. We actually had arrived a bit late (Ed and I didn't know we were supposed to be there at a certain time!), and so when we caught up with the 6 others on camels with whom we would spend the night, the lead desert nomad called Abdul up front (saying that he was freaking out my camel - I was at the end), and the two discussed their different lives as nomads - desert versus mountain in Berber.

We ate - can you guess?. . .Tajine, that night, and slept in a tent made out of goat's or sheep's wool, and pooped and peed anywhere in the sand (this could be improved, since it's not like the solid stuff disappears in the desert - it stays, forever). The following morning I climbed up the nearby highest sand dune - wow, was that TOUGH - and when I reached the top, was disappointed to see that I could see the rest of the desert with its villages outside of the sand desert. We weren't as far out as we'd hoped we'd be (maybe I shouldn't have climbed the HIGHEST sand dune?), but it was still quite a nice little experience. There were a few trees where we'd camped, and apparently, this was where a spring was, hence the camp in this particular spot.

Everyone is always worried about us travelers getting sick, well, of the three of us, Ed, me, and Abdul, guess who got sick? Yes, Abdul. Poor thing. It seems that he can't tolerate tomatos of some sort, and spent the night mostly being sick. After a continental breakfast (the only type of breakfast that we ever had in Morocco), we got back on the Camels and headed back. Houssine had slept in some big building where other guides sleep while awaiting their customers. We headed back to Ouarzazate. Ed and I decided along the way that we should take Abdulrakman up on his generous offer, as Houssine and Abdul were telling us that the Kasbah was just a major tourist attraction and we wouldn't like it. Unfortunately, Abdulrakman was working very late, so that didn't work out, and so we went to a really nice little hotel that Houssine knew about, very near to the Kasbah, with a French woman as one of the proprietors. We decided to go out for a beer (Houssine, our muslim driver, definitely enjoyed partaking a little beer with Ed, so we had to oblige him, right?). It was a bit of an adventure finding the place, with a washed out detour that demanded 1 or 2 mile per hour driving over a couple of sections to not destroy the small van. When we were seated, we got the impression that the proprietor was saying that he didn't have any beer. Ed said "I want beer" in the little bit of Berber that we'd learned, and suddenly, he and Houssine were able to get beer. Language makes a difference. . . Next thing we knew, the owner was sitting down with us and having a nice little chat (mostly with Houssine and Abdul), and teaching us magic tricks.

The next day, we saw our Kasbah, were invited into one of the stalls for some "Berber Whiskey," which we accepted, and wound up playing drums, after drums were distributed all around. In our night out in the gorge after visiting with the Nomads, we'd also done the same thing, so now we were pros. . . (ok, maybe not. . .).

We finally left, and this time, we were going to take a bus to Ouarzazate, and say goodbye, once and for all to Houssine and Abdul (by the way, Abdulrakman called us several times, sorry that we couldn't see him again, and therefore just to say hi and talk about work a bit). While we awaited the bus to Marrakesh, Abdul and Houssine realized that they had an opportunity to pick up some more clients if they took us to Marrakesh, themselves, rather than us taking the bus. I asked the price, and when it was the same as our taking the bus, man, we were *in*. Actually, it took a while to get to that conclusion - they were only offering to do it if the bus failed to show up. We finally convinced them that they should do it, regardless. We were all happy that we'd be spending more time, together, and that we'd be able to stop in the lovely mountains whenever we wanted (the mountains were between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh), so that picture taking would be enjoyable, rather than the "fly by" picture taking that I was doing from the bus on the way out to Ouarzazate from Marrakesh that first day.

On the way, Houssine invited us to HIS family home, which wasn't exactly on the way. We were concerned about making our plane the next day if we did that. We told him that the plane left at 6. Houssine thought we meant 6am, and looked crestfallen. We corrected him on the time - it was 6pm, and he lit up like a Christmas tree with sparkling white lights on a cold, dark, Christmas eve. Both Ed and I didn't want to then turn him down, in spite of this, but we did, as we were very concerned about making the plane, given how far Houssine's family home was from Marrakesh, and how we knew time was not something that either Houssine or Abdul took particularly seriously. If something happened, the car broke down, whatever, it'd be hard to work around it, so we told Houssine again and again how happy we were that he'd offered, and how happy we were that he was so excited about us visiting his home, but no, on to Marrakesh. I found us a hotel in Ed's guide book, and in the heart of Marrakesh, we found it. Houssine was rattled up with all the people wandering around in Marrakesh. We arranged to meet, again, for one last dinner, and Abdul and Houssine took off, and Ed and I went to the Hotel. I wasn't in the best of moods so Ed suggested that I take a walk, and I did. The city was absolutely bursting with people. I was reminded of my people-crushing experience in the ancient city of ZhuZhou in China during the holidays. It wasn't as bad as that, but oh, it was close. Wall to wall people, even in the huge (football-stadium sized?) center plaza, that had no fixed structures.

We met with Houssine and Abdul for dinner (they were going to take us to Pizza Hut! Ed stepped in and saved us. . .) at a multinational place where Houssine could get his pizza and I, soup. A cat joined us for dinner. They were pretty prevalent. Not too many, but they were definitely around. We said our final farewells. We'd seen Houssine doing a "cheek" kiss with many of his friends that he met along the way (he'd made the trip he took us on we guessed at least 800 times, so he had some very good friends around). He would approach his friend, and they would put their right cheeks together, and then their left cheeks together. They'd do this a couple of times. They may or may not have kissed - it seemed to depend on how well they knew each other. (I know some on this list could probably fill me in on the exact ritual.) Anyway, I told them that I knew that they kissed each other, but did they hug, as well? Hugs were more what I was interested in. . . "YES," they said, enthusiastically, and hugs were then liberally applied to all individuals. Houssine said that he's going to try to learn English, but we made no such promises that we'd learn French, Arabic, or Berber, but we did use all of the words that we did know on parting. We've since been in contact via email.

Oh, for our last lunch in Morocco, we chose a restaurant where I thought that I could explain to them what I wanted - a "berber omlette" that has no meat in it. They didn't understand "Berber omlette" so we said in 3 different languages (French (spoken and written, just in case), Spanish, and English) that I didn't want any meat, but that tomatos, onions, and even egg were all ok. Ed congratulated me on my communications skills. I wasn't so sure. . . I was worried because the waiter had said "no tomatoes" a couple of different times. The proof would be in what we got. The waiter came over with a great flourish, set down the ceramic with the now-familiar hat-like round-top, took off the top, and voila! There was ONLY meat on the plate!!!! Ed happened to have ordered a vegetarian dish, and rather than deal with the mixup, we switched, especially after both of us looked at the plate in horror at having been so miserably misunderstood and said "no, no, no, no!" A second waiter came running over and gave us a spiced tomato sauce. We concluded that he realized that something was wrong, but had no idea what, and so had tried to fix it. We ate each other's meals and wondered how we could have made what we'd said any more clear. We realized that I'd never once told the waiter, specifically, that I was vegetarian. I'd just said "no meat" in the 3 different languages. . . Fortunately, we can afford the adventure in the food department. . .

We did make our plane. . . It was a very nice trip. . .


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