Thursday, October 26, 2006

Morocco... More African than Arab

Hello, again!

I want to share with you all what a great experience I had in Morocco. Before I left, I checked my favorite travel information resource to find out a little bit about Morocco. I ran across a very funny (and totally accurate) post on the forum regarding the stupid things people say to you when you announce you are going to Africa. Many of these were familiar from my trip to West Africa, but since Morocco seemed more touristy to me, I hadn't expected them again - but I got a few nonetheless. So once again I remind my general audience - Africa is not a scary place. Everyone should experience it at least once.

So anyway, after reading up, I expected lots of hassle. I put on my best leave-me-alone face and got ready to face the country. I then walked out of the Marrakech airport to zero taxi drivers harassing me, zero pickpockets, and zero anything, really. I was a bit stunned. I arrived after dark and, after a bit of difficulty, found my lovely little hotel situated right on the big square - Jemaa el Fna - which was a blur of movement after dark. I was traveling during Ramadan, which meant that days got started late, and after dark it was a big party. The square was crammed with vendors, restaurants, snake charmers, story tellers, henna tattooers and the many people being entertained by the aforementioned.

I spent the next day in the souks of Marrakech, looking at all the cool stuff there was to buy and talking to the locals, who were incredibly friendly. There was little hassle, though I did notice people started to get short-tempered around 3pm, when the heat and the lack of food, water and cigarettes really started to kick in. I had "Ramadan breakfast" with a few of the people I had met during the day. Though I was not officially observing the holiday, it ended up that I didn't really eat during the day, as it was hard to find food and I felt guilty eating in front of people who couldn't.

The next day I set out to actually see the sights of Marrakech, including the famous mosques and palaces and tombs and the tanneries, a stinky but interesting sight, where they are still preparing leather the way they have for centuries. I also met a local who at least claimed to be Jewish, so when I told him about my heritage, he showed me around the Jewish quarter and I got a personal tour of the synagogue from the old, blind rabbi. Most of the Jews in Morocco are gone now, though all the Moroccans I met claimed that there is no animosity and Jews could live with the Muslims if they so chose. In any case, it's interesting to see that the Jewish buildings are all painted in a gorgeous blue and white, while Muslim buildings are generally red.

The next day was my last in Marrakech, so I visited the Jardin Majorelle, gardens and a house painted an amazing shade of blue that has become known around the world. I saw a few other gardens and walked around the new part of town, and then I got to talking with a local person, and I ended up having Ramadan breakfast with his family. I don't know if it's Ramadan particularly, but I found Moroccans to be very open and I received more invitations to dinner than I can count (something like in West Africa). Anyway, they had a small room, and we sat on the floor with him, his sister, and her adorable little baby, and had porridge (harira), dates, and fresh mint tea.

That night I took the overnight bus to Fes, where I was less lucky with my hostel (they appeared to have gone through my stuff while I was out). The city was quite different - it's not built around one central square - but full of character as well. The market streets seemed even tinier and more confusing, and it seemed somehow less colorful than Marrakech. I spent the day walking around the Medina, the old part of town, and it turned out Fes was really nice too. Here again I ended up getting a big tour of the old Jewish Quarter (largely because the guy found out I was Jewish) and the Jewish cemetary, which was quite a sight.

I had also heard there was more hassle in Fes, but in fact, there wasn't really, though I did see the group tourists getting hassled. It was also interesting to see, though, one of the big reasons for the reduction in hassle. Morocco has implemented in the last few years a Brigade Touristique. This is a force of police, both uniformed and undercover, who go around making sure not only that the locals don't hassle the tourists, but that the locals don't even talk to the tourists. I found this to be a little extreme, but it did result in my being left largely alone by people who would otherwise have given me a hard time, so I can't complain too much. I did still manage to meet local people, though, and again had Ramadan breakfast (a little different this time) in their house.

The next day I decided I'd had enough of cities, and I struck out in a rickety local bus to a town called Sefrou, which apparently sees tourists every three days at best. I was accosted by a guide and ended up taking him, which turned out to be a good idea. The town was very untouristy, which was exactly what I was looking for. And with the guide, I was able to enter people's houses and see both the people and the interiors, which was very interesting. We also visited some homes that many years ago were built in caves in the mountainside. At the end of the day, I had Ramadan breakfast with the guide's family, who turned out to be extremely nice and generous with me. They even invited me to stay with them, but sadly, my time was too short there.

The next morning I boarded a bus for Chefchaouen, a little town in the mountains that used to be a bit of a get-away. However, it's quite close to Spain, and now that there is a highway, it's overrun by Spanish weekend tourists, which makes the locals pretty unfriendly and the atmosphere much more hassled. I will admit it was georgeous. The town is painted various shades of light blue along with white, and it's set on top of the mountains. If there weren't so damned many tourists there, it would be fantastic.

I spent one night there and then headed to Tanger for my airplane. I spent an hour walking around in Tanger and soon realized why the daytrippers hate it. It's what you'd expect from a border town in a developing country right next to a rich country, and I was happy I had decided to spend so little time there.

So all in all, Morocco far exceeded my expectations. I don't know if I was just lucky, or if it was related to people being nicer during Ramadan, or if it's because of the tourist police. But I would highly recommend Marrakech and Fes to anyone wishing a more unique holiday. The fact is, as sights go, there's not too much. It's more about absorbing the atmosphere, the old, tiny streets and the crazy markets and the donkeys coming through loaded with stuff and men behind them shouting "balak!" And amazing food and wonderful, friendly, happy people.

That's all for now, folks. I'm back in Brussels for the next few weeks, and then I'll be in California for a week and in New York for almost two weeks. Make sure you let me know if you'll be nearby, as I'd love to see as many people as possible while I'm home. And don't worry... there are MANY more pictures where those came from. If you'd like to see them, just ask when you see me.


PS. While I was in Morocco, I read the most amazing book. If you are at all interested in psychology, mental illness, or the failings of our government to deal with mental illness, and if you have a strong stomach, read The Shoemaker, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, author of Sybil. It's a fantastic, eye-opening, heartbreaking book.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Life in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Finally what you might call "settled" in Brussels, it's time for another update on my adventures. I had a whirlwind three days in New York City, during which time I got two more courses of antibiotics to try for my mysterious Chinese illness. After that, Ernie (my dog) and I flew to Paris via Detroit, a major detour because it turns out it's nearly impossible to fly internationally with a dog. Customs in France didn't even blink at us, and D. met us at the airport and drove us to Brussels.

We spent the first few weeks at a temporary residence that was in a very "ethnic" neighborhood - we picked it because it was the only one in Brussels that took dogs. After several days recovering and both courses of antibiotics, I finally kicked what has been most likely identified as a weird form of pneumonia, though I guess I'll never know exactly what I had or how much damage I did to my lungs. We got to know some of the neighborhoods and ultimately picked a great, sunny, 2-BR apartment with a huge terrace in Ixelles, a section of Brussels south of the center that is home to lots of students, artsy types and immigrants. It's a cute neighborhood with lots of character and diversity, nice parks and fantastic markets. We then started to learn about Belgian bureaucracy.

Not only do you have to register your lease with the government, but you have to register yourself with the police, which is followed by a home visit to make sure you actually live in your house (tax reasons, apparently). Even tourists are supposed to register with the police if you are staying over 3 days, but I doubt anyone ever does. And I thought I had left scary Chinese-style Big Brother behind... We tried to get a phone installed - we were granted an appointment SIX WEEKS after the day we requested it. Electricity required some strange paper that of course we didn't have when they came to turn it on, and the list keeps on going and going. Things don't work, no one answers their phone, things get done at a snail's pace. Very frustrating when you are trying to move into an apartment but have no light or hot water or internet.

Meanwhile, I still have seen very little of what tourists think of as Brussels. Instead of all the famous monuments - the Grande Place, the statue of the peeing boy, the Atomium, etc - I have visited more furniture stores than I care to recount, including the biggest Ikea in Belgium, where D. and I spent many long hours. Actually we learned they have great food at Ikea, but when D. started suggesting we decorate the apartment with a yellow and blue theme, we knew we'd hit our Ikea limit... We even went all the way to France to look at a store there, brought back a desk chair that we left in the car in front of our hotel overnight, and woke up the next morning to find the car window shattered and the desk chair stolen. The police came to take the report looking awfully bored, and they told D. that he should speak with his work to find out where to live, cause he shouldn't be where we were. Anyway, our new neighborhood seems a lot nicer, luckily!

And the apartment has come together now - we have all the basic necessities like furniture and electricity, and Ernie has made himself at home in my new favorite chair. It's funny the things you miss, though - right now I'm dying for some Mexican food... or good sushi... or even a measuring cup that has cups and ounces on it. But we've found that here there's great Turkish, Greek, and Vietnamese food, excellent waffles and fries, and some great ice cream places. So even though I'm missing the diversity of the offerings at home, there's fun stuff to discover here as well.

D.'s job officially starts on the 16th, so in the meantime he is going to Paris every week to work there at a temporary job, leaving me working in Brussels all alone. So now that I've caught up on most of the work from this summer, I'm taking advantage of the last week he'll be away to go to Morocco. I'll be leaving Saturday and coming back the following Sunday - a bit of a short trip, but I've been dying to see Morocco and it's close by, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

I still haven't had a chance to get up my pictures from China, but I'll be working on that soon, hopefully. In the meantime, here's a map of my route, and below is a picture of D. and me in the Yellow Mountains.

Most of you should have received an email by now with my new contact information. If you want it and don't have it, just send me an email. I'm available on skype and through the local New York number I sent out, and the time difference here is 6 hours later than New York. It's always good to hear from people, as it's tough to be away from you all over here. And now that we have a nice futon and a couch, of course anyone is welcome to come visit. Heck, maybe if you come visit me, I'll actually finally go see the sights of Brussels.

In the meantime, watch for another update post-Morocco, and I'll be back in California November 18-26, and in New York Nov. 27-Dec. 4, so hopefully I'll get to see a few of you then.

Keep in touch!

Adventure map for 2009...