Saturday, September 7, 2013

I've Moved!

Dear readers,

This blog has been moved to another site. 

Keep following the adventures here

With love and candor,


Saturday, April 6, 2013

The sound of coming home

I can't remember the exact moment when I stopped acknowledging the call to prayer. I have come to realize that many of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that once seemed so new and exotic have one by one been slowly accepted into my daily routine, devoid of any of the wonder and novelty that they once had.

When I am able to get out of work on time, I enjoy returning home on foot. It is a great way to stretch out my legs after a day of sitting behind a desk, unravel my thoughts, and take in some fresh air. I know I am almost home when I reach the old kinisa (church) and pass through the neighborhood souq (outdoor market) filled with produce sellers, runaway chickens, fishermen selling their daily catch, and glowing shops filled with towering cones of spices and country-fresh bottles of olive oil and honey being sold in recycled soda bottles. As the sun sets, the souq is set alight with incandescent bulbs strung on wire above street carts and white candles nestled between mounds of citrus.

The "Kinisa" - the local landmark of the neighborhood

As I was walking through this scene one night, headphones plugged in, I started thinking about what friends and family back home think my life is like. What sort of reaction would they have if they were here with me? Would they find this ordinary too?

In an attempt to share a piece of my everyday life through a different medium, I (stealthily) recorded my walk home through the souq a few weeks ago.

The clip starts out with the sound of motorbikes revving, punctuated by a car horn.

At 0:58 you can hear the first vendor shouting out the price of his product.

1:16 - "Limoun miya! Limoun miya!" A vendor selling oranges for 100 rials/kilo. As I mentioned in an earlier post, rial is an old form of currency and I don't know the exact conversion into dirhams, let alone dollars. What I can tell you is his products are as cheap as they are fresh and local - very.

1:24 - "Ashra dirham fraise, fraisa! Fraisa!" Strawberry vendor. Ten dirhams (a little over $1 USD) for a kilo.

The area where the souq is located is packed on either side with various carts and vendors. Some sell their products out of carts, others out of the back of their pick-up truck, or simply splayed out on a tarp on the concrete. There is a single corridor open between them for shoppers to mill through. However, as you can hear, motorbikes and cars often push their way through as well, creating additional chaos and congestion.

2:04 - the chirping and clucking of chickens kept in pens out in front of the butcher shops.

2:18 - radio from one of the shopkeepers

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Search of Casablanca

Casablanca the imaginary

When you think of Casablanca, what do you think of? Chances are, the film Casablanca is one of the first things that comes to mind. Piano bars and flapper women smoking on long cigarettes being courted by ex-pat men draped in linen suits topped with fedoras smoking on cigars, sipping dark liquor seeking refuge from the
dusty chaos of the Moroccan souk outside the door. On several occasions I have embarked on a quest in search of this timeless “Casablanca”. What I have found, however, is it is just as fleeting as the beat poet’s search for the American dream back in the 50’s.
Casablanca the reality

It only takes a simple google search to find that most travelers who find themselves in Casa share this sense of disillusionment. They come in search for the Oriental mystique encapsulated by its namesake film that was actually shot in Hollywood, California. They come looking for that Western cosmopolitan “oasis” in a country that can feel as intense and relentless as the desert sun.  They think that its reputation as a developed city wedged between the European influence dating back to the days of the French protectorate and embodied by its aging art deco architecture and its strategic position along the coast of ancient North African/Arab routes that it will be a perfect compromise.  Like most of Morocco, Casablanca is a city of contradictions.

Within the Rabat ex-pat community, Casablanca is seen as a city filled with all of the unattainable Western goods that we crave.  Most of us see the city as a place where we go to experience “big city life” with all of its perks: specialty grocery stores, countless bars and options for nightlife, international cuisine, Starbucks coffee, and shopping centers filled with Anglophone Moroccans and European-Western fashion. Last weekend, we went there with the purpose of purchasing clothing to replace those from a bag that got lost in the black hole of international transit. While we ultimately left feeling successful with our trip, it occurred to me that it could be useful to future prospective travelers to write a bit about our experiences as two young American (vegetarian) ex-pats visiting the city. Though the city can feel very overwhelming, your best tool into enjoying yourself and taking in all that Casa has to offer is by coming in knowing what you are actually getting yourself into versus what you expect to find.

One of the first things to know about Casablanca is the taxi drivers.  They are surly, temperamental, and see Western tourists as having wads of money to burn in their pockets. They know that you are at their mercy and unless you prove otherwise, they will try to rip you off. It is very common in Casa to notice that cab drivers will not use their meter. Often they will try to determine a fixed price with you before leaving. You can assume that if they’re doing this, then they are making a pretty serious profit. If you get in the taxi and notice that the counter is not on, be firm and make sure to ask him politely to turn it on for you.  Do not be discouraged if the driver does not know where you are going. There is a chance he (for whatever reason) does not want to take you there. Do not fear. Someone will. If you are trying to get to a particular place (ie: restaurant, bar, club), it is never a bad idea to come prepared. Have the cross street written down as well as the actual address. If there is a landmark nearby, try mentioning that (the neighborhood where it is located is also important, as many boulevards stretch far across the city). Tipping is never necessary.

Second, the ancient city/medina is not worth your time and has a reputation for being dangerous and overpriced. The goods you will find are generally shipped in from (best case) the main artisan cities, such as Fez and Marrakech, and (worst case) if you’re not careful you may be buying a ‘made in China’ Moroccan trinket. If this is the experience you are looking for, I would highly suggest you check out one of the two cities I mentioned previously. If you are tight on time, the Rabat medina will certainly help you get your fix and is a mere hour train ride away.

Alcohol is something else to keep in mind. Don’t let the European vibe fool you – it still takes a bit of cunning to procure alcohol to consume in the privacy of your own home, or in our case, hostel room. Most major grocery stores have what is called a cave d’alcool (alcohol cave), which is usually located in the back corner of the store. The cave usually closes about an hour prior to actual store closing. Fridays can be particularly difficult, as it is the Muslim holy day and most major grocery stores will close their cave around mid-day to approximately 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. In general, I try to assume that 8 pm is usually the cut off point. Acima is a major grocery store that has several locations throughout the city. If you hop in a cab and say “Acima”, chances are there will be no problems.

As mentioned previously, the type of shopping I typically take part in in Casablanca is of a specialty nature. As a vegan/vegetarian, I was thrilled to learn that an organic grocery store has opened up two locations in the city.  The store is called La Vie Claire and it is located at 64, Boulevard Aïn Taujdat and closes at 7 pm.

Every time I go to Casablanca I stay at a hostel named Hotel Central. Not only is it the cheapest bet in town, but the owner is very friendly and a polyglot. He speaks English very well and at the sight of your passport will most likely bellow “OBAMA!” several times for dramatic effect. The rooms are simple and clean and the downstairs lounge area has lovely Moroccan tile work and serves a standard Moroccan breakfast of traditional breads and coffee that is included in your price for the room. The hostel is located within walking distance from the Casa Port train station, making it especially ideal for travelers.

Last weekend, we were craving Asian food and had dinner at a wonderful Asian fusian restaurant called Asia Garden (go figure). Not only did we find a seat on a Saturday night, but the service was very attentive, the décor was coherent (again, difficult to always find), and there was a drink menu. From dinner, we walked over a few blocks to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a famous Casaoui bar inspired from the film Pulp Fiction. As we turned down the street where the bar was located, we witnessed a small street scuffle that ended up involving all nearby shopkeepers and stoop dwellers. From our perspective, a group of Casa girls were getting into a taxi and saying goodbye to their male counterparts after spending a night out together. It was clear that the guys were tying to coax the women to stay out. In a juvenile display of aggression, one of the men lurched forward and lightly struck and disrespected the woman trying to get into the front seat of the cab. It was clear that he had obviously done something to upset this woman, and walked away coolly from the taxi with his cronies in tow. However, the girl who was attacked sprang from the taxi, tore off her down jacket, and began chasing down and screaming at her assailant. As the guy was trying to get away, we saw a storeowner run from his store, plant his feet against the pavement, crossed his arms against his chest, and blocked the running man like a New England Patriot’s linebacker. The man was soon engulfed by the mob forming in the street and we were able to safely watch from a distance as justice was served. We stood from a distance to watch the drama unfold near a bookcase filled with bootlegged DVDs. The owner, noticing our position next to his bookshelf, approached us hoping we were interested in purchasing some. We politely declined and continued on our way. Is Casablanca a dangerous city? Of course. Do Casaouis (people from Casablanca) take care of their own? Absolutely yes.

Upon arriving at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, we couldn’t help but giggle at realizing that we had found exactly what we were looking for: a classic 50’s diner scene, equipped with black and white tile, pounded sheet metal on the bar, artistic tile mosaics on the wall depicting famous scenes from the film, and a menu including a “Royale with Cheese” and “Mia’s $5 shake”. Of course, there were some inconsistencies: a European fashion channel playing the Spring 2013 haute couture fashion lines of famous designers and a band of Sub-Saharan Africans covering American hits like REM’s “Losing my Religion”.  It was everything we were hoping for.

After a few drinks, we decided to make our way back to be closer to our hostel and search for a nightcap. After a few strikeouts: Rick’s Café, a lovely homage to the film Casablanca, unfortunately stops serving at 12:30. 

Rick's Café 
We then tried a few hotel bars with no luck, and then stumbled into destiny: a huge blinking vertical sign spelling out “NIGHTCLUB” attached to the side of the Best Western Hotel. Equal parts intrigued and apprehensive, we approached the red carpet leading down into the club. I asked the doorman in my best naïve tourist impersonation if the nightclub was safe for women.  He assured us that it was very pleasant and with that we descended down the stairs. The drinks were overpriced but the entertainment was something out of the bar scene from the movie “Airplane!”. Old men in suits filled the paid tables surrounding the center dance floor and stained glass lamps with red bulbs provided the added ambiance. Part of the entertainment was an all-women dance troupe doing choreographed dances; each dance deserving a costume change into another set of scantily-clad leotards to fit the theme of the tune. Some songs were sensual Arab hits while others were classic dance songs from the United States and Europe. We felt like we hit the jackpot. Below is a video from the night:

The following day we went to Morocco Mall. Tourists should see no real reason to spend any time here unless they are in desperate need of some new Western fashion or crave the IMAX movie experience. Thursdays they show an American film at the IMAX in English. Getting to the Morocco Mall is a situation where foreigners will have a hard time not being ripped off by taxis. From the Casa Port train station, if you had the meter on, a taxi trip to Morocco Mall should cost you less than 40 dirhams one way. However, most taxi drivers will try to convince foreigners that due to many reasons (traffic, distance, etc.) that the trip is worth 60 or 70 dirhams. Try to pay around 50 dirhams. On the way to the mall, after the immense construction of the new port area, you will come across the awe-inspiring Hassan II mosque, set out over the Atlantic surf, which was built to be the most ambitious structure in all of Morocco. If you pass by at night, be sure not to miss the laser-powered floodlight atop the minaret pointing towards Mecca. The mosque is definitely worth a visit. Continuing on in the taxicab, you will pass along the “Corniche” boardwalk area along the coast, lined with chic clubs, restaurants, and cafés. The final sight to see before the mall is the mysterious Island of Sidi Abderrahman, a spiritual island haven just off the coast home to the famous Sidi Abderrahman marabout (spirit house) and several fortunetellers. Legend has it that Sidi Abderrahman had the power to walk on water, and therefore was able to travel into worlds only accessible to him.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

So there you have it, some tips for navigating and appreciating the “real” Casablanca. I hope this information serves you well. If there is something you are looking to be answered that I didn’t cover, please leave a message at the bottom and I will see if I can help point you in the right direction.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Trading order and efficiency for chaos and value

Afternoon in December on my street in the neighborhood of L'Océan, Rabat

I was lucky enough to take a little over a week off from work to go home and spend Christmas with my family in the US.  After spending about four months abroad since my last trip home this summer, I found the cold bite in the air novel and waking up to the dusting of snow on Christmas morning to be a real treat.  The biggest surprise Christmas morning, however, was receiving a new laptop.  I had been using the same laptop since the beginning of college and it had really started to show its age. Between its geriatric speed, my lack of internet access, and a new full-time job, I had little time or motivation to keep up this blog. With this new computer, I really have no excuse to not continue writing regularly anymore. Here’s to hoping I can keep my own promise.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and I took a trip to the local Whole Foods to pick up some last minute ingredients that we needed for our family’s Christmas dinner at home. As anticipated, the entire store was a madhouse with others in the same situation. The chaotic and almost claustrophobic atmosphere instantly transported me back to my shopping routine in my neighborhood in Rabat. After experiencing the natural “shock” of returning to American grocery stores with their long aisles with well-organized products, beautifully polished produce, and bright fluorescent lights, this experience made me ease back into my usual shopping routine. I grabbed the shopping list and wove through baskets, carts, and small children with ease. I aggressively wedged myself through the crowd and up against the bin of tomatoes, taking a moment to pick them up one by one and feel for adequate firmness and inspect for blemishes.  This kind of shopping experience is the one I am now familiar with. I have traded physically beautiful produce and well-organized shopping marts for the open Moroccan market, filled with its squawking chickens, aromatic spices, bananas hanging from cart roofs, and overflowing piles of vegetables spilling out onto the street. I have my regular vendors who I like to patronize, partially for the quality of their product, and partially because of the conversation.

In addition, rather than selling their produce in dirhams (MAD), Morocco’s standard currency that has an exchange rate of approximately 8.5 to 1 USD, the vendors typically say the prices in riyal, a currency that dates back from before Morocco was a French protectorate (which certainly says something about the history of this neighborhood). Of course, when asked, the sellers will convert the price to dirhams, but most locals naturally do the exchange rate in their head. At first, it can feel very daunting when hearing that a kilo of vegetables will cost you “400 rial”, but there is no need to be alarmed - it is less than 20 dirhams, or about $2 USD. The exact exchange rate still remains a mystery to me, but that is part of the ex-pat experience, I suppose.

The area of the city where I live and buy my vegetables is a lower to middle class residential neighborhood. It is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. I constantly witness (and sometimes even experience myself) the spontaneous crossing of friends, followed by obligatory bises in the middle of the street. Unlike the more professional/cosmopolitan areas where French is king, the language used on the street in my neighborhood is Darija. Usually, when Moroccan shopkeepers see a western-looking foreigner, their first instinct is to speak French. In my neighborhood, this is not the case. Not only does Darija reign supreme, but the socioeconomic bracket of the area would suggest that many of the people I interact with don’t have even enough education to know any French.

I have become very accustomed to this environment. I can see the ocean from my kitchen windows. In the summer, when the days are longer, I enjoy watching the sun set over the Atlantic as I cook dinner. Being at home made me consider the pro’s and con’s of the differences between the experience of grocery shopping in the United States versus Morocco. In the United States, we have long since traded out the small specialty vendors in replace of convenient supermarkets that sell everything on our shopping list. In Morocco, while there are small supermarkets that mimic this model, the majority of the population still adheres to the weekly cycle of the souk, where once a week, typically Saturday mornings, new shipments of produce, meat, chickens, and fish replenish the outdoor markets. Everyone has their preferred vendor for every category, and they build relationships with them. They will ask you about your friends and family.  If you haven’t been there in a while they’ll ask you where you’ve been. When Hurricane Sandy was all over the news, they all asked me where my family is in the US and if they were safe and well. They take personal pride in their products and are able to give you suggestions and help you pick the best ones. They will tell you what is fresh and what you should wait to buy. The bread vendor with carts piled high with khubz will direct you to the freshest bread. They will say “don’t take that one, it’s from this morning. Here are the ones baked this afternoon”.  The corner store by my house can even anticipate what I am going to purchase and even helps remind me that I forgot something (“no Coca Zero today?”). Sometimes if you are buying a great deal of things, they will even give you a small discount or throw in a small item for free.

Of course, there are benefits to each system. By living in Morocco, I have traded efficiency and order for chaos and value.  While every once and a while I wish that I could just go over to a Stop and Shop or Whole Foods, anonymously get everything on my list and silently check out, my current situation has consistently provided me with a loving (and necessary) nudge that helps me interact with my community on a regular basis.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In light of last week's events

This week started off innocently enough. It was my first real week of work and I was eager to getting started and to begin feeling more integrated in the office environment. Tuesday was the 11th anniversary of September 11th and it was business as usual. Aside from checking Facebook news feeds and the news headlines, there was very little "on the ground" affirmation of the day. Which makes sense; when I've spoken with Moroccan friends about the terrible tragedy in New York City on September 11th, 2001 very often they respond with a comparison. They may comment about how our death count in the Middle East since 9/11 significantly overshadows the three thousand-something casualties we incurred that day; they will bring up Palestine, or the ongoing events in Syria. It's not that what happened in the US eleven years ago isn't important or wasn't devastating, but having discourses like this that don't always end in proverbial back rubbing is (for me, at least) in a way its own form of catharsis. It's nice to live in a world where the United States isn't the center of attention and to reflect on the significance of other violent and unwarranted attacks that go on around the world. My heart goes out to the victims, their families, and their communities. I can only imagine what it feels like.

In ways, being in the MENA region on the anniversary makes me think about it and its implications even more. I recognize September 11th as a terrible day not only for the American people, but as a grim indication of the impossibility for peaceful foreign and domestic policy to occur in the future. On Tuesday I hopped in a taxi on my way to work. The driver was making light conversation as we wove through morning traffic. As we drove, I looked out the window to see everyone going about their daily business: shop keepers sweeping the sidewalks, women in djellabas carrying raffia baskets and tugging along small children as they completed her errands, men colluding at coffee shops around fanned-out newspapers and cigarettes, women frying breads outside small corner stores on large metal griddles. This is what daily life in Morocco looks like to me. There are no car bombings and no anti-American banners or flag burnings. In my experience, if a Moroccan doesn't understand or agree with an element of American foreign policy, they will want to ask you about it, not attack you for it. As an American in their country they give you the benefit of the doubt. They welcome you with open arms. These are the Muslims that I interact with everyday.

It is because of my daily experiences here that I find what happened in Benghazi and what spread to consulates all over the world devastating and sickening. I have friends who work at the US Embassy in Rabat scared at the possibility that the same thing could happen to them. My family was worried for my safety. It didn't help at all when it was released that one of those killed at the US consulate in Benghazi was from my home town. He was a Navy Seal and taught English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. Though I am confident that the worst is over in Morocco, I'm trying to stay up to date on the news and am checking the Moroccan US Embassy website regularly for any breaking security warnings.

 On Friday peaceful protests broke out all over the MENA region directly following midday prayer. In Morocco, there was a protest of a few hundred Salafist Muslims organized in Salé, Rabat's neighbor across the river, and one of with numbers between 300 and 400 people near the US consulate in Casablanca. Aside from the symbolic burning of the American flag, heavy police presence (especially for the one in Casablanca), and anti-American chants (seen at nearly every protest that occurred that day across the world), both were small in size and relatively mild. The only reason I know that they happened at all was because my cab driver on my way home from work was listening to the news. I felt no tension or witnessed anything firsthand.

According to a report from Al-Jazeera on Sunday, King Mohammed VI spoke on the phone to Hillary Clinton, where he called both the murder of the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and the film that has provoked these protests and attacks as, "odious". In an official palace statement, King Mohammed VI expressed his, "sincere condolences" over Tuesday's events in Benghazi while also condemning, "the inadmissible provocation agains the sacred values of the Muslim religion".

In regards to the "anti-Islamic documentary" that supposedly started all of this, there is increasing evidence that points to the fact that the film wasn't even made by an American Jew, but rather a Coptic-Christian American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula looking to incite violence between the West and the Muslim world. What's more is that several sources have come out saying that even the actors performing in this incredibly sub-par and low budget film claim that they were seriously misled. Mentions of the Prophet Mohammed in the film seem to have been dubbed in during post-production. Regardless, I see the events that occurred as avoidable, unnecessary, and embarrassing. There seems to be blood on everyone's hands.

All of a sudden, with last week's events, we (Americans) are back with the image of Muslims as extremists and the entire MENA region as a breeding pool of blind hatred towards the West. How many years of progress in foreign relations have been erased? How many will it take to bounce back? To all that were involved I wish to ask this simple question: was it worth it?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

3la salemtek! Welcome back.

After a summer’s long vacation from writing, September feels like a perfect time to resume. 
This summer went by in a blur. I spent June and July in Rabat. With a lightened workload, I had ample time to travel, try new things, and spend time with friends. One of my goals for the summer was to learn how to surf. There is a small surf shack on the beach that offers a very attractive surfing “package”, where you pay for twelve lessons that include an instructor, wetsuit, and surfboard. As you can imagine, the surf instructor are very laid back guys who do this because they absolutely love it. There is no time limit to your lesson. You arrive, wait for the mouja mezyena (good waves), and then set out until you tell them safee (that’s it, I’m done). The best times of day to surf this summer were either early in the morning or about 6 at night. 

For one reason or another, I ended up doing the latter time, which placed me floating in the surf just as the sun was beginning to set over the Atlantic. While my goal was never to become an expert surfer, as someone who has always enjoyed swimming there is something incredibly exhilarating about finding a new way to enjoy the ocean. It has also been fun to be a part of a different side of Morocco, meet new people, and learn new words along the way. My sister visited me for a weekend in the very beginning of the summer and I was able to take her surfing. She loved it and was able to stand up on her first lesson! It was great to be able to share something like this with her. 

Us post-surf lesson with our instructor Hamza 

 In the beginning of July a few friends and I did a four-day trek up Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Our journey started by taking a train to Marrakech, where we spent one night in a hotel before setting out early the next morning to meet our grand taxi driver. We drove an hour and a half up winding dusty roads to a small village in the mountains to meet our two mules (b’ghla), guides and begin our journey. Over the course of four days we saw breathtaking views (that brought upon many ‘Sound of Music’ inspired sing-a-longs), hiked up countless switchbacks, stopped for lunch in a small village, danced, and met new friends each night as we congregated for tea and cookies in the mountain refuges. Our guide, Hicham, spoke English fluently and was very gracious to us. He told us that he has several sisters and was therefore not phased at all by spending four whole days isolated on mountain trails with a group of four girls. For that, we were lucky. He also impressed us by the ease at which he maintained his brisk pace. He always had his hands casually slid into his pockets and barely ate or drank anything while we hiked. He told us he was practicing for when he has to work during Ramadan.

The view from the house in a small mountain village where we stopped for lunch the first day
Being in the mountains meant that Darija was replaced by Teshelheit (a Berber dialect) as the lingua franca. In the evenings after dinner we would sit around with the mountain guides at the refuge and they would try to teach us songs in the local language. While the words didn’t stick, we did acquire a fun list of new words in Teshelheit during our trip: 

Or geese eelie - there isn’t…

Or geese ajmeel - you’re welcome

Aghrome  - bread

Aman - water

Eemeem - delicious

Goma - brother

Ultima - sister

Eesh/ch’e - eat
Zund zund  - same

Eemik eemik  - so-so

Timinseeween  - good night

Throughout the trip, the summit had been the goal. Everyday we were getting closer and closer to reaching it. In the morning on our second day, I had my first experience with altitude sickness.  The climb was steep and the altitude raised quickly. All I could think about was old PBS documentaries on climbing Mt. Everest when they showed hikers experiencing altitude sickness and needed oxygen masks and coughed up blood. Of course, our experience was not that bad. I did feel incredibly nauseated, had serious vertigo, and as it was happening felt like I would never be able to summon the strength to continue. Apparently, one of the easiest ways to ward off altitude sickness is by drinking enough water. Finally, the episode passed and we moved forward. I learned never to underestimate the power of proper hydration. 

Post-dinner tea time on the roof of the refuge our first night
The next day was summit day and I woke up nervous. I knew that the altitude we would reach today would be even higher than yesterday and my fear of coming down with altitude sickness for another time haunted me. As usual, we set out early in the morning. I couldn’t believe it when we could finally see the metal triangle perched atop the peak in the distance and Hicham gave us the estimated time as 30 more minutes. In the final stretch, my heart began pounding and I broke into a jog. At that moment, it all felt so easy. We finally reached this incredible peak that for days seemed threatening and unattainable. From the top, there were several groups from all over the world taking pictures, holding flags, laughing, and enjoying well-deserved snacks. Hicham surprised us with a huge bag of cookies and nuts. We looked out in all directions over the clouds as a large group began praying in a circle, hands out, heads bowed. We sang more folk songs, took pictures, and then started our descent down. In total, it took about two and a half hours to reach the top from our refuge, and about 3 hours to get down.

Group shot at the refuge before beginning our summit hike on day 3


Less than a week after returning from our hike, I packed up my bag again and set out on a three day trip to Brussels in hopes of setting up contact with several people and associations who could help me with my Fulbright application. The days went by fast and were filled with pleasant surprises. Cold calls turned into warm meetings and I left feeling euphoric by the way the puzzle pieces felt like they were finally fitting together. 

Shortly after coming back from Belgium, I could feel that there was something different in the air. The streets of Rabat became flooded with cars that had MRE (Marocains résident à l’étranger - Moroccans living abroad) license plates from France, Spain, England, Italy, and Belgium. This could only mean one thing: summer vacation was here and Ramadan was quickly approaching. The date sellers in the markets nearly doubled, as did the honey-soaked chebakiyya pastries and large tupperwares. Billboards popped up all over town showing major Ramadan sales at supermarkets and department stores. Interestingly, as the city began to fill up with extended families, it also simultaneously became more peaceful and quiet. 

Just as Moroccans were welcoming their extended families living overseas back home for the holidays, I was lucky enough to have the rest of my family visit for one week. We hired a driver and went down south to the beach towns of Essaouira and Agadir as a way to beat the heat and enjoy the seaside culture à la marocaine. After five days down south exploring Argan cooperatives, ancient medinas, resort-style beaches, and learning to respect the incessant and powerful wind Essaouira is known for, we returned back to Rabat and Fez for our last few nights together. Ramadan began during our trip, which provided us with an added challenge of finding food throughout the day while everyone else was fasting. Despite that, it was a great experience to be able to observe the holiday with my family. I think we all realized that while we may not fully grasp the purpose behind this strict month-long regime of fasting and feasting, we could respect the similarities that it shared to holidays that we hold as sacred: how time slows down and people take the time to be with those that they love. 

After saying goodbye to my family I began a two-week house/cat-sitting “post” at a friend’s house in Agdal. The couple has two very loving and attention-hungry cats that feed off human affection. It was nice to be around clean and domesticated cats again as opposed to the all too often run-ins with cute but dirty dumpster-diving ferrel variety. As teachers at the Rabat American School, their house was equipped with many comforts of home, including dependable wi-fi, a verdurous garden, and an ‘American telephone’ that I could use to call home. In the evenings I would have friends over after they broke their fast. We enjoyed several Mexican fiesta dinners followed by long games of cards that lasted well into the night. 

The garden tortoise that always found his way into the house

Finally, I returned home to Boston for a short three week trip. It felt wonderful being home again with my family just in time to celebrate my birthday and savor the last few weeks of summer in New England. I left to come back before my heart or head was ready, but new opportunities were on the horizon back in Morocco that I needed to attend to. Last week I signed a one year contract with an American-Moroccan development agency and moved into a cozy new apartment on the beach. While things are moving fast and at times feel overwhelming, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Inch’allah my exchange of comfort and familiarity for new and challenging will be one that will prove to be as rewarding as I imagine it will be. I’m looking forward to all the lies ahead while trying to take things one step at a time. Shweeya b shweeya. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Falling in love with Paris all over again

Last weekend finally arrived, the weekend where all of his things were packed up to leave for the summer back to the U.S. Since he was flying out of Paris, we decided what better send-off than to spend one last weekend together in Paris before his Sunday departure? (It was also helpful because I needed to renew my visa.)

At 4 in the morning we rolled/dragged all of the suitcases and got picked up in a grand taxi to be taken to the airport. We woke up a few hours later as we were landing in Paris on a rainy Friday morning. After finding our hostel we wandered around the city trying to soak in as much as we could. Here are a few photos from our trip.

Like any good tourist, we started by wandering down towards the Seine and then made our way over to the Louvre. I am always blown away by how grand the architecture is in Paris. Everything feels like it was placed with the greatest of intention - every fountain, flower box, statue, and pigeon. 

While we were debating about whether or not to go inside, we decided to do some trompe l'oeil photography. 

"Winged Victory"
Mounted in an archway atop a landing on a marble stairway, this statue representing the goddess Nike towers over all visitors wishing to enter her wing of the museum. Such a breathtaking piece of art. 

This is the face you make when you realize that Friday nights the Louvre is free after 6 pm for all under 26 year olds! 

Ingrès - L'odalisque

Seeing this painting felt like I was meeting a friend for the first time after years of written correspondence. L'Odalisque was one of the major influences/references that I used in my senior thesis last year on the contemporary literary/visual art response to 19th century French orientalist art's depictions of North Africa. Interestingly, though Ingres is known for his depictions of the Orient, he actually never once set foot in North Africa. The furthest he got was Italy.  

A view from outside the Louvre. For those of you who haven't visited the Louvre, this once was the palace of the king of France. The entrance of the museum is through the glass pyramid.

The archway across from the Louvre. Though this picture doesn't do it justice, I was struck again by the marvels of French architecture. We came upon the arch just as the sun was setting, and if you looked straight through the archway you would see a tree-lined garden "boulevard" (too wide or grand to be called simply a pathway) with Cleopatra's needle, and then finally the L'Arc de Triomphe mirroring this arch on the other side.  

Our hostel shares its arrondissement (18e) with Montmarte and Sacre Coeur. This is the view of the church from our walk to Gare du Nord train station, our nearest metro stop.

On Saturday, we went to the Catacombs, which begin close to the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Apparently this location is just south of what used to be the city gate, which was called the "La Barrière d'Enfer" (The Gate of Hell). 

Built in the 18th century as a way of dealing with the overflowing city cemeteries due to various battles and plagues, the Parisian catacombs are a sight to behold. It is a series of tunnels that stretch over a mile long and are filled with neatly stacked bones of over six million skeletons. The whole site has a very macabre vibe. At each turn there is a new marble plaque that has a quote usually in Latin or French about death. For instance, after going down over a hundred steps to get into the catacombs, there is a sign hung above an archway that reads:

 "Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort"

(Halt! Here is the empire of Death.)

There was another plaque further along that read:

"où est elle, la Mort? Toujours future ou passée.
 A peine est-elle présente que déjà elle n'est plus." 

(Where is she, Death? Always in the future or past. As soon as she is present she is no longer.)

The catacombs were fashioned out of old Parisian mines. Back when France was part of the Roman empire, it was customary to bury the dead on the outskirts of the city (interestingly, this practice is also seen in the way that the old Moroccan medinas are set up - with the cemeteries by the outer walls). However, with the arrival of Christianity, it became customary to bury the faithful in consecrated ground around churches. Between population growth, war casualties, and plague victims, the amount of dead was leading to not only spatial issues but sanitation ones as well. Moving the bodies underground seemed like a logical solution.

Afterwards, we continued strolling and sight seeing. 

France's color palette: beige, iron black, green, glass. 

We kept remarking about how great it was to spend a few days in France as an interim before he headed back to the U.S. not just because it's Paris, but because it helped facilitate a gradual adjustment to the inevitable culture shock of returning to the U.S. after spending nearly a year in Morocco. Though it is still very different from Morocco, there were several commonalities that we found to be comforting. First of all, while the city was comparatively pristine to our home of Rabat,  the similarities in the architecture of the buildings in Paris to the ones that line the grand boulevards in Rabat were undeniable (though admittedly, ours are a bit more worn down). Another similarity was in the language, though not in the way you would expect. While walking through the city we often heard more Moroccan darija than Parisian French, which made our ears perk up. On our last night in the city we grabbed falafels by the Notre Dame Cathedral at a small little stand on a cobble-stoned side street. I overheard several clients speaking to the man behind the counter in Arabic, so I decided to order in the true lingua franca. After a short exchange, we realized that not only was he a Moroccan immigrant, but he grew up in Rabat in the quartier just next to ours! It's moments like this that make you feel like the world isn't the large after all. 

After 48 hours in Paris, we found ourselves staying up late drinking wine from the bottle and agreeing that we should live here some day.