Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's the end of Morocco as we know it-and I feel fine

This entry can be billed as the last of the Morocco trilogy. I know it is out of sequence with the previous two postings, but I felt like the trip needed closure.

Ana and I decided we wanted to get away from cities and focus more on relaxation and the southern coastal town of Essaouira sounded like it would be a good fit. We had no plans or ideas of where we would be staying, all we had was a way to get there. The bus ride there from Marrakech was just under three hours. When we arrived the station was swarming with touts hounding us with business cards of riads and hotels. One boy attached himself to us as we tried to make our escape and as much as we tried to shake him off our trail, he remained persistent and basically broke us down. Despite some hesitation we followed him and his mom into the medina. 20 minutes later he led us down a dark alley and through the doors into one of the most beautiful riads. The boy and his co-pilot were tipped well. After being in Essaouira for less than an hour, we knew this was where we wanted to spend the remainder of our vacation.

Sqala du Port

North Bastion

Near the beach

View from our riad

towards the ramparts

Stencil behind a stop sign

The little fortified town had plenty of surfing (renowned for wind and kite surfing), history, seaside kung-fu fighting glue-sniffers, and other activities to keep us busy for five days. Essaouira is also known for art galleries and the Gnaoua Music Festival (when the town of 70,000 swells to over a half a million). Jimi Hendrix even lived here at one time; at least that is what Lonely Planet states. Ana and I assigned ourselves to the task of spending the early evenings in our riad’s sitting area sampling Moroccan wine, olives, cheese, and bread-somebody had to do it, right? Dean and Michele eventually rolled into town for a few days and we decided that it might be nice to rent a car and drive up the coast back to Casablanca.

Outside the kasbah

Place Moulay Hassan

Dean with olives

Michele with the olive man

Olive press

Just outside of Essaouira we encountered a small mountain of olives and made a u-turn to go check it out. The large pile laid in front of a one room local olive oil producing shop. We were invited in to look at the press and to see the process. One of the workers was sent to get bread so we could sample the final product. It was delicious and we wanted some and for about $15 we got about a two plus gallon container’s worth that would ride between my feet for the next 9 hours (and yes we did find a way and made sacrifices to transport it all back to Egypt and NYC-Michele by far has the best story). We stopped in Safi (known for their pottery) just long enough to check out the process of mass production pottery. Dean was stoked to climb into a waist-high hole in the ground to throw a pot. The day ended with scattered rain showers and while we hoped to find lodging along the coast, after looking at a couple of houses and rooms it wasn’t going to happen. We pulled into Casablanca after 10 pm and checked into Hotel Volubilis in the city’s center. There was live music and chaos pouring out of the hotel’s basement disco and Michele and I couldn't resist the temptation. The “band” consisted of a keyboardist and vocalist playing traditional Moroccan songs. The club was narrow and smoky. Most tables were piled with empty beer bottles and baskets of heavily salted popcorn while the locals-only dancers showed off their moves and rolled back their eyes possessed by the rhythms. In retrospect it was more like we stumbled upon a witches’ brouhaha complete with a soundtrack. Of course in keeping with the theme of the trip, an argument ensued when the bill arrived.

Where I plan to open a record store
Along the Atlantic coast
Kiln in Safi

North of Safi

The beach of Qualidia

Michele and Dean headed back to the states the following day and we reconnected with Joseph and Lianne returning from their Fez and Meknes explorations. Our red eye flight back to Cairo included an unscheduled stop in Luxor due to heavy fog adding an additional 3 hours to the trip. When all was said and done, we spent almost 24 hours traveling and boy did that suck the big one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Random notes and the crazy ass taxi driver

One thing we are learning while living in Egypt is the art of flexibility and that time is only a state of mind. Back in the states if I drove anywhere-be it across town, up to LA, through the Rocky Mountains, pretty much any destination, I could accurately calculate the amount of time it will take to get from point A to point B. It just comes down to a simple formula of time, distance, and speed. I've discontinued this tried and true formula almost six months ago. Donkey carts, traffic jams, fruit vendors, pedestrians, are now factored into the equation, but more importantly the trump card of them all is the phrase “inshallah” (lit. God willing).

A Sunday's fisherman

I went to the hospital a couple of weeks ago for a minor lung infection, the doctor gave me some medication and told me “you should be better in a week… inshallah .“ I don’t know about you, but when you visit a doctor you want to leave filled with optimism and not factor fatalism into your recovery. What if your relationship with God has been a little rocky and then your hear that you’ll only get better if God wills it. This kind of news doesn’t give you much hope. Maybe God will allow you get better only to get run over by a donkey cart transporting steroid sized cauliflower a week after you’re on the mend. There is a dicho that reads “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Sidi Bisher

Speaking of getting hit by moving vehicles, last night was a rare taxi ride. You could say our driver was a bit hyper focused on getting us to our destination operating under the instructions “kill them all, let God sort ‘em out.” If you have seen old footage of the big wave surfers and how they reach out and touch the waves they are riding-as to establish some sort of organic connection; to become one with it. That was sort of like our driver, but substitute waves for other cars on the road as he touched at least a dozen or so while weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps it was an act of pushing them out of the way. I was fortunate enough to have access to an “oh shit!” handle to grab on to for the majority of the ride, and I bet commuters in the cars next to us held on to theirs. The icing was when he would yell at other drivers after cutting them off and making them almost crash. As fate would have it, a pedestrian did make the error in assuming that our cab was going to stop or slow down and allow him to cross the street. That was wishful thinking. The impact was minimal, but it was enough to upset the man who stood back up and walked over to give our driver a piece of mind. Instead the victim was reprimanded. The guy then tried to get into the front seat and was pushed off as the cabby. Happy Valentine’s Day to you sir!

Flier on the street

Valentine’s Day dinner was more like a Thanksgiving meal. The kitchen staff made us a delicious turkey with all the fixings including red wine. Afterwards we attended a Rotary Club sponsored VD fundraiser concert at the Bibliotheca. The two hour event featured an orchestra, vocalists, and choir performances. I have to say I was a little thrown off by the two John Denver numbers “Annie’s Song” and “Perhaps Love” all that was missing was shag carpet and wood panel walls to give it the full-on 70’s effect. The Denver songs were just a teaser to wet our appetite for Francis Lai’s “Love Story” and Barbara Streisand’s “Tell Him” I thought about walking over to coat check to see if they had a bullet with my name on it. The meat and potatoes of the event were the musician and the conductor who constantly turned to the audience to show disapproval to the endless chatter. The French and Arabic songs were the best of the bunch and the crowd favorites. Overall it was quite an enjoyable evening.

Hops hops hops

Huck Finn and I brewed our last batch of Islamic Pale Ale this weekend. It is tradition to sample our previous efforts while grooming the predecessor. Our choice this time around is based off Russian River’s Pliny of Elder. We added over a pound of hops hoping to push the IBU (International Bitterness Units) well past 100. Our Green Flash West Coast IPA clone is about history, sigh.

Huck Finn pouring the medicine

It doesn't get any better than this

We saw our first dead cat on the road and that is pretty remarkable. On average, once we leave the compound we encounter at least 50 cats in any given outing. You think I'm exaggerating? Bite your tongue and back off! There is no truer statement in that the streets in Alex are littered with felines, hell our campus has a sizable army of them. They do provide useful services such as rodent control and sex education for the kiddies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Turning 41 in Kuwait

I might as well write something about my visit to Kuwait City since the experience is still fresh in my head. Kuwait could be considered a softer version of Saudi Arabia with the anti-pork, porn, and alcohol laws. This year’s Senior Fine Arts EMAC (Eastern Mediterranean Activities Conference) was hosted by the American International School (AIS-Kuwait City, Kuwait) and in attendance was Dubai American Academy (DAA-Dubai, United Arab Emirates), American Community School (ACS-Beirut, Lebanon), and Schultz American School (SAS-Alexandria, Egypt). This would be the first of two EMAC trips this year. In April, Ana and I will travel to Dubai for Jr. Fine Arts.

Marwan showing off just one of his amazing talents

The way the conference works is that each school brings 20 students in addition to 3 coaches (teachers) to a hosting school. The visiting students will stay with a local family and coaches with another teacher and/or a school administrator.

Our departing day started with a slight change of airports. The original idea was to fly out of Alexandria; instead we were diverted to one on a military compound about an hour southwest of the city. The line getting into the airport is on par with that of an Egyptian supermarket; if you feel a sense of entitlement then you get to cut in front of everyone else. We weren’t always successful in holding our ground as a few people slipped through our human wall. I put a pair of tenth grade students (Marwan and Abdo) in charge of getting our boarding passes and taking care of the visa matters since they are pros at the process.

Once past customs, everyone headed to the duty free shop to buy gifts for their host families and I followed suit. My host would be receiving a bottle of contraband. When the time came we all piled on a bus and rode to the middle of the desert to board the plane. I tried to sweet talk the flight attendants into letting me sit first class since it was my birthday, my suggestion didn’t pan out in my favor as my initial window seat was changed to sitting between to two men who each dumped on a bottle of cologne before boarding. I’ll be sure to fail the student who stole my seat!      

When everyone still liked each other

We arrived in Kuwait City only to wait another hour to buy the remaining visas and to hunt down luggage. In the meantime, a student managed to drop her milkshake on the floor and proceeded to look at it for a few minutes, nope it wasn't going to pick itself up. As for the bottle of wine I had brought for my host, I managed to get through customs the first time but when we had to go back to look for our luggage I was nabbed and reprimanded. I asked the customs official if he was going to take the bottle home and drink it and he replied, “yes” from what I learned later that evening is that confiscated alcohol is usually given to the police to be sold on the streets. Sounds like a great racket to supplement the income.

The drama crazies

Two of the three amazing drama teachers I worked with

When we arrived at the school, the students were farmed out to their host families and I was delivered to mine. I was fortunate to be staying with the high school principal Blair Lee, his wife Kim and their two boys. All the visiting teachers and some of the admin went over to their place for a home cooked Thai meal, both the company and the food were excellent, everyone was very sympathetic to the bottle of wine that could have been. I met up with my students later for a nightcap of Pepsi, Red bull, chocolate, and coffee at an outdoor cafĂ© situated on the Arabian Gulf (note: calling it the Persian Gulf is fighting words in these parts, sort of like saying “Israel” when the correct term is “occupied Palestine” just goes to show you that political correctness is worldwide).

The hard(ly) working Schutz team

My new favorite sign

The Lee family was quite nice and gave me a key to their house so I could come and go as I pleased. I learned a lot about the culture, they had been residents of Kuwait for 6 years and had stories to tell. Accidents caused by speeding are a huge problem; the question is not “if” you get into accident it is “when” so they bought an SUV as their first line of defense. Flipped over car accidents are the sights to see as all the Kuwaitis get out of their cars to help flip the car back over. The roads did feel rather aggressive as I survived a couple of near hits in my taxi outings.

non-alcohol Bud-epic failure

The first morning of EMAC started with a tie-dye shirt activity where students had to first go around with a marker and write messages on the backs of other people’s conference shirts. Of course a couple of our suave male students took the opportunity to jot down their phone numbers and other shameless forms of flirtation. (I later learned that the concept of "hooking up" is totaled by the number of hugs they can get, the more hugs, the more of a stud you are) Later we broke off into our discipline areas and in drama we filled the remainder of the morning with icebreaker activities. After lunch we were sent with our groups (one student from each school) to work on a section of a play that Mr. Brown (the host drama teacher) had wanted drama to perform. It was called “The Hare Who Wanted to Be A Man.” A fine play it was. 

Some of Kuwait's crazy looking buildings

I have to say that I was quite proud of my group, we all worked hard and weren’t afraid to try unconventional ideas in creating an original interpretation of our play’s section. Our practice area was in an aerobics room filled with giant exercise balls and when we needed a break we pounded the crap out of each other dodge ball style. I even took delight in throwing oranges at the kids trying to make them fall off the bouncy balls. One of my students mentioned that she had Rice Krispies treats in her bag (BTW she is a full-on sugar addict) and I tired to bounce over to her bag to steal one and fell flat on butt. The worst part is she won’t let me live it down.

Sign outside a mosque

Our day usually stated at 8 am and ended twelve hours later. There were outings such as a field trips to the mall (Kuwait is littered with them) and to the souk. My evenings were spent with the Schutz kids, you’d figured that we’d be sick of each other company, but that was hardly the case. Our school is like a family (for better or worse) and they were kind enough to invite me to tag along with them…with that said you could say that no matter where we went trouble ensued when the bill arrived. Establishments feel like they could take advantage of a large groups teenagers by over charging us. Most places were rude and the final night at Sakura Japanese restaurant was epic to the point where I stood up and looked for the hidden camera, I was convinced that we were being filmed for an episode of Punk’d. Abdo was charged $40 for his Pepsi while I was charged $35 for a bowl of miso soup and a side salad. The manager “Victor” (yes, that is his real name, I even asked him where he got his name from) said that there was a minimum charge and that the price included everything on the menu except for beverages, so we all ordered more food only to be told that “we ran out of that” and “the kitchen will close in 10 minutes,” it was one excuse after another. It came to the point of being absurd where literally everyone in the restaurant was laughing hysterically; from the students, to the other patrons, to the staff…everyone was on board for this rare collective outburst. In my paranoid state I kept looking over my shoulder and poked my fork through the ice cream looking for hidden razor blades as I thought Victor hired an assassin to take me down. I told my students “if I die tonight, you’ll know why.” When we finally settled the bill Victor had the audacity to assume that we would be coming back and promised that our next visit would be a better experience, I politely assured him that we wouldn’t be returning. We camped out at our table well past closing reflecting on the conference and other matters while nibbling on our ice cream with the full wait staff staring us down.  

The infamous Kuwait Towers

Every country I have visited thus far I’ve picked up a cap to add to my dad’s extensive collection and Kuwait was no exception. I found a stall that had what I needed and a lady customer was impressed that I was buying some souvenirs of her country and she refused to let me pay. She told the shopkeeper that whatever I wanted was to be charged to her. I politely declined her generous offer, but she insisted and created a little goodie bag for me since I clearly didn’t pick out enough items. The best of the bunch were the button ribbon combo with pictures of Kuwait’s various kings. Could this have been the long overdue thanks for Operation Desert Storm…sorry that was another attempt at a joke in poor taste. 


Mosque by the school

The final gala event commenced with an art installation piece and tribal drum beats as the students broke out of their giant box and sprinkled glitter on everything within a ten-mile radius. The choir group followed with a nice diverse selection of songs. Drama was up next and the transition from one group to the next was seamless. The band ended the evening with their unique version of  “My Favorite Things;” the theme of the conference. The dinner was catered and it was the realization that the fun was coming to an end. I had met some amazing kids and adults and wished that it could go on for just a little bit longer. Mrs. Brown, the event organizer, the go-to person, the supplier of plug adapters and almonds and Ritz crackers, and the all around heart and soul of the conference really pulled it off. I said my farewells and walked back to the Lees exhausted and drained.

Mr. Greg!!!

The flight home was uneventful though we almost left a couple of girls behind at the airport because they were on their own time schedule. I'm sure Greg (the other coach) would have waited for them, he is much nicer and more forgiving than me. The 4 hour bus trip back from Cairo was the nail in the coffin. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Marrakech-Morocco adventure part two

At least we can say the manager of the Oum Palace Hotel threatened to call the police on us when we tried to check out. A potential problem with booking a hotel room on-line is that you don’t always know exactly what type of room you are getting. I had booked three rooms for the six of us and the hotel argued that all three were booked as single rooms. One confirmation form did verify this and we were willing to pay the difference. As for the other two rooms there was some gray area in that the booking didn’t specify as to how many guests could occupy the room. In short, there was an extra charge for our spouses that we had to cough up at the end or else we would have missed our train to Marrakech, in addition to the police threat. When we paid, Dean said the management all high-fived each other.

The three-hour train ride to Marrakech was a pleasant one. The landscape was surprisingly lush and picturesque even the locals in our six-person compartment were nice enough to chat with us. When we arrived, Joseph and Lianne had booked four nights in the Medina and were off. Dean and Michele had secured our accommodations through a friend who is connected to the owner of Hotel Toulousain (in Gueliz-about a 15 minute walk outside the Medina) where we would spend our first two nights. The hotel was simple, comfortable, and in retrospect, the ideal place to stay in Marrakech. Hassan, the owner related a story to Michele and Dean regarding punk rock legends The Clash, this of course caught my interests. The story is that Hassan’s cousin Cherif in New York City owns 17 (name of the restaurant) and one day in the late 70’s auditioned the Clash to play at his establishment. Cherif “didn’t appreciate” the style of music played and was blunt in telling the band. In response the Clash wrote “Cherif don’t like it, F**k the Kasbah.” And as Paul Harvey would say "That my friends is the rest of the story."

I was also wearing my Casbah hoodie

A trip to Morocco would be incomplete without a visit to a hammam (think bathhouse as in a Turkish bath). Hassan’s wife, Malin booked us an afternoon session at a local spot outside the city limits in an aspiring suburb. The experience started off with changing into a skimpy towel and sitting on heated marble steps in the sauna room for thirty minutes to begin the initial exfoliation process. At some point the heat becomes suffocating which leads to the next step where the Speedo wearing guy in the next room places you on a marble slab and goes to work scrubbing you down with a sandpaper-like glove in addition to pulling some pro wrestling moves disguised as a massage that makes you squeal like a pig. These men take great joy in the art of torture. The session ended with a cold shower to seal the pores. When all was said and done, our skin did feel remarkably softer.

The tranquil Jardin Majorelle

On the third day we left Hotel Toulousain for a pre-paid riad in the Medina. We followed the instructions as stated on our printout until the point where we had to hire a tout to guide us through the maze of alleyways. When we arrived, it felt like a big letdown, the ambiance is a work in progress, the building is desperately begging for someone to bring out its’ character. The few scattered partially deflated party balloons attached to the railings hardly suffice as interior decoration. Our room was spacious and the drawers to the cabinets were filled with random pieces of hardware and undergarments, though there was ample room for our items. The owner was away on holiday so he left his housekeeper in charge, she prepared our daily breakfast of mint tea (with a touch of mystery spice and perhaps a dash of Palmolive for the suds) and rustic bread sprinkled with anise seed. Our two nights there were quiet and peaceful.

Our riad in the Medina

The remarkable quality about the Medina in Marrakech is that it can be simultaneously experienced by all the senses. The main square Place Jemaa el-Fina by day is filled with snake charmers, monkeys, scammers, fresh juice carts, musicians, henna artists, and so on. The evening ups the ante with the arrival of the portable restaurants and their teams of aggressive recruiters who will literally push you into their stall. I admit it is a tall order to try to ignore the aromas of fresh grilled food, but Michele, Dean, Ana, and I weren’t exactly converted by the offerings of our meal. The souks and stalls in the Medina are a shopper’s paradise and serve the useful function of getting lost and disorientation. As tempting as it is to get caught up in the buying frenzy of exotic souvenirs, we ended up with a tasty bag of black olives for under a buck. So much for our bid for “consumer of the year” title.

Place Jemaa el-Fina at sunset

The snakes of Place Jemaa el-Fina

Joseph and Lianne scored a righteous riad in the residential area of the Medina a good hike away from all the commotion. There was talk about having New Years Eve dinner at their place but in the end the idea didn’t materialize. We did manage to find a last-minute festive location on the top floor of a boutique hotel to welcome in the New Year. For a very modest price the night consisted of a 3-course dinner, bottomless Moroccan rose vino, a swinging live Berber music trio, and a multi-level cake with lit sparklers. It was quite an enjoyable evening.

New Years Eve

It has been documented

The space between the glass and spout adds flavor to the tea 

Our initial plan for the remainder of the trip was to head north to the imperial city of Fez then up to Tangier. Ana and I decided that we had our fill, as in met our quota of vacationing in areas with a heavy concentrations of people. We scrapped our northbound plans for a little R & R on the Atlantic coast, a short three-hour bus ride west. That is how we spent our first day of 2010.