31 January 2006

Strangely Warm Daze

Yesterday was strangely warm here in NYC. The thermometer topped out around sixty degrees.
People were strolling around in tee shirts.
A temperature record set something like eighty years ago was broken.
Then the sun was hidden by some clouds and the customary cold set in.

Being back in New York, working, commuting has been strange and a bit difficult. It's tough to come from places where everything is new and exciting and be suddenly thrust into a familiar environment. I'm finding it more difficult than it was before to see stories in the quotidian movement of people in this city.

Nonetheless, I'm working hard to keep my eyes and mind open to the small happenings around me. Like, for instance, seeing a performer getting ready today in the subway, staring into a mirror, applying white makeup to her face (or maybe it was a he, I wasn't sure), dressed in strange clothes. I stood behind her, taking some photographs, ignoring the straphangers bumping me in their speedy passage through the tunnels. As I turned to leave, I looked back and saw her looking through the mirror back at me, smiling kindly, returning my curious gaze.

30 January 2006

A few photos...

Tired and lacking inspiration at the moment...
A few photos from the weekend...

27 January 2006


Ever since I moved to New York, I've seen a lot of people walking around with beverages in brown paper bags. Interestingly, very few of these beverages are alcoholic (the paper bag no longer offers any "legal" protection in NYC).

Most are soda, juice, water, etc. So what's the point?

Is this an example of urban style, similar to a clothing fashion? Are juice drinkers trying to pretend to be beer drinkers?

Is there some other rational reason to mask a beverage's identity?

25 January 2006

In the City of Jerz

Visited Jerzey City tonight to meet up with my parents for dinner.

Strange place.

I walked into this weird bar called LITM, because it seemed to be the only respectable sort of place in the area around the Grove St. PATH train (granted, it was cold, and I only walked about half a block). I walk in, thinking it's a cafe, realize it's a bar, think maybe it's a gay bar, think about leaving, decide to just have my coffee and sit in peace, out of the cold.

The bartender was this weird guy, strange necklace (like a ring on a chain) and a tight shirt and short hair and an extremely snooty attitude.

"Do you have coffee?"
"Do you have decaf?"
"Would you like to see the menu?"

(*Why I need the menu to get a decaf coffee is beyond me, but I accept anyway)

"Sure." (I look at the menu. It takes like three minutes to find the coffee. They have decaf.) "Uh, I'll have a decaf"

(He opens the menu, scrolls down the list of coffee (there are four on the list), points to the ONLY ONE ON THE LIST that says "Decaf" and says "this one?")


So I sit down at a table and start screwing around, drawing bar stools and cups, writing weird stuff in my journal, looking around at the place and thinking how strange it is, and the guy brings me my coffee (delicious coffee, by the way, served in a mini-French press). I sit there sipping it and listening to the chatter of the ONE GUY in the bar besides the bartender and the Mexican guy that made my coffee.

His chatter goes something like this:

"What's fucking today? Is it fucking Wednesday or fucking Thursday? I just want the fucking weekend, man...I'm gonna come in tomorrow and get some fucking dollar Oysters Man! Best fucking deal in fucking town, man! Hey, Let me get another Heineken man!"

To give you a brief mental image of this guy, so that you have a better idea of who is speaking here--He's about 35, maybe 40, thick black hair, dressed in a nice suit...This is not some homeless guy with this sort of sailor tongue, this is a rich guy...

Now, another guy walks in--older--maybe 53 or so, sort of tired looking, a bit sick of work and the grind and whatnot. The guy at the bar screams, "Don't tell my wife I'm here!"
"Don't tell mine!" the guy responds...

So they sit there, together now, ragging on their neighbors and the cursing guy is cursing a lot and talking about the Harley he sold and the Porsche he bought and on and on and on about money and this guy makes this much and where did she get her money from and did her father leave it to her?

They throw suspicious glances at the skinny kid in the corner drawing his coffee cup. A cheesy 80's song comes on. The cursing guy screams.

"Holy Shit! I haven't heard this fucking crackhead in a while"

Turns out that the Bar's Acronymic name means "Love is the Message"



23 January 2006

Match Point

I headed to work today, feeling like the semester had officially started now, walking on a wet and cold Monday morning to the train, squinting through the darkness and rain, squeezing into a crowded subway car, jostling for a seat, changing at Union Square, finding another seat, getting out, walking through the cold and unsmiling 7:45 am Bronx streets.

Oddly, I was feeling wonderful today, unbothered by the nasty weather, floating on clouds of optimism and good feelings. I woke up this morning to a beautiful song and followed its path through the day, receiving happy phone calls and meeting friends for coffee and lunch and strolling down the Manhattan streets, oblivious to my frozen feet and hands, happy to be here.

I decided to stop into a movie, the new Woody Allen film as it turned out, and as I bought my ticket I relished the happy guilt of stepping out of daylight into a darkened movie theatre. One of Allen's characters, in some movie or another, loved this feeling as well, so I enjoyed the fitting nature of my delicious escape. I put on my glasses and settled comfortably into the sparsely populated theatre, ready for the film.

I had been warned about this film by a friend, who told me that she liked it, but that it made her feel "uncomfortable." To describe the feelings that I felt when I left this movie as a lack of comfort would be an understatement that I can't begin to quantify. Something about the main character's eyes freaked me out from the beginning to the end, and his actions throughout the film, and his reactions to his own actions, and the relationships between him and the other characters left me reeling.

I left the theatre in a daze, stumbling into the now unforgiving dark and cold. I walked slowly and in circles, ducking into dark corners and shadows, avoiding eye-contact with people, feeling suspicious and watched and sad. I went into a coffee shop for an espresso and mourned the emptiness of the place. When I came out of the bathroom to see two other patrons, I mourned their intrusion into the previously quiet place.

I'm very rarely so strongly affected by a film, and I wouldn't normally write about it here, but I experienced such intense, strange feelings during and after the viewing that I couldn't resist saying something. I'm only finally beginning to calm down...

22 January 2006

Brooklyn Sightseeing

Back in New York, rejuvenated and inspired by recent travels, I'm embarking on an attempt to truly become acquainted with my temporarily adopted city. This afternoon I headed off with friends to the Brooklyn Heights / Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn to check out the Lebanese area.

Now, this may have once been a truly Lebanese section, but it is unfortunately now only two or three shops and a few restaurants along Atlantic Avenue. Small as the section is, it's nice, and the stores are great little places, filled with baskets of spices, olives, preserved lemons, strange cooking devices, and jars of all sorts of Lebanese foods. I took the opportunity to buy some olives and preserved lemons, both common ingredients in Moroccan cooking.

While my friends dined on some Lebanese cuisine, I strolled through the neighborhood, gazing upon the beautiful brownstones, the families and children everywhere, the cafes and restaurants. I joined my friends as they finished their meal (I wasn't all that hungry) and had the good luck to be quickly asked to finish off the food that they had been unable to finish. And so I dined gratis on raw and cooked lamb, eggplant soup and stuffed grape leaves.

Leaving the area, and most of our friends, Antonella and I headed off to walk some more and check out the views of Manhattan from under the Brooklyn Bridge. We saw some weird stuff there--a woman in a bra and a see-through shirt seductively posing for a cameraman, as well as some people taking wedding photos.

Now, there is obviously nothing all that strange about taking wedding photographs in such a beautiful place. The sun sets over the skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge rises gloriously above the East River, and the Manhattan Bridge stands just in the background. The weird thing was that the wedding photographer wasn't using the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop, but rather a Coca-Cola machine, a local ice cream parlor, and some cars.

New York is a weird place, but it's nice to be home.

21 January 2006


I have just purchased a ticket for Madrid for May 25th, returning August 2nd. I'll be traveling around all of June, mostly likely in Italy, France, and perhaps a short trip over to North Africa, either Tunisia or Morocco. For the month of July, I will be in Cadiz, Spain, once again working with American highschool students in their half-hearted struggle to learn the Spanish language.

This is good, because my trip to Morocco has awoken in me a great number of emotions, one of which is a severe wanderlust, which my brother Brian calls "Bruce Chatwin-type feelings". (Read about him here) Coming back has been strange, and feelings of reverse culture shock have been stronger than usual.

And so, in four months I'll be gone from NYC, having temporarily completed my own personal experiment of living in this city.

More soon.

19 January 2006

American Keyboards Suck (and more)

So for all my whining and complaining about Moroccan Keyboards, I now find myself in the ironic position of floundering on my own, previously efficacious American Keyboard...I feel like an immigrant with little education, lost in a linguistic gray zone, damned to forever speak two languages badly. I reach for the letter A and find myself with a Q, the letter M becomes a semi-colon...This sucks.

I finally made it back to Brooklyn tonight, my Dad having picked me up in Newark this afternoon. We went out for a nice Chinese dinner and he drove me back into Williambsburg, full, content and beginning to fade as the minutes ticked by.

I had an interesting experience in Paris the other day. Exhausted from my trip from Strasbourg to Paris, I stumbled into the airport of Charles de Gaulle, running hard on 3 hours of sleep in the train. My heart raced as I stumbled around the airport, fixing tickets, eating sandwiches and waiting on typically hellish French airport lines.

I finally made it onto the plane, sat back and enjoyed the empty seats on either side of me, pondered my good fortune, and promptly began snoozing, or as my brother would say, "blowing some Zeds." I awoke some time later, convinced that I had been sleeping for quite some time, confused by the lack of movement of our vehicle. I suddenly looked up to find a strange sight on the plane: French firemen, fully laden with airtanks and whatnot, pointing in my general direction. They approached the man next to me (thank god! my heart races at the mere sight of any person of authority in an airport, for truly irrational reasons), and began asking him questions. He responded to their inquiries by telling them that he had smelled gasoline or smoke or something.

We all left the plane minutes later, confused and a little annoyed, hoping that the problem would soon be figured out and taken care of.

Five hours later I found myself sitting at a hotel bar with Tony (21 yrs old, Marine Guard at American Embassy in Togo) and Paul (62 yrs old, economist) talking and laughing at enjoying some beers (thanks Paul!) and eating peanuts and dealing with the wise ass behind the bar. We then headed to dinner, to enjoy some red wine and osso bucco and discuss politics and war and food and everything that comes up between total strangers happily stranded and pushed together to eat dinner in Paris.

Finding myself in this situation, I had the opportunity to think about personal encounters, and reflect on the situations in which we often meet people, the ways in which so many of our daily meeting are so prescribed, so preordained by lines of class and race and gender and geography. Travel is, of course, a wonderful antidote to these barriers, but even during voyages, people tend to huddle together, to find people that look and walk and talk like them, to search for something that can serve as an anchor in an unfamiliar place.

And so, I say that Air France's terrible planning and infrastructure and constant strikes and confusing directions and generally haphazard way of conducting business can truly offer a solution to bland and expected conversations and banal nascent friendships. It is Air France's crazy flight problems that let me meet the Deutsch (last name) couple, a recently and happily married Hasidic couple 60-something years young and share a wonderful flight with them. The Gallic aviation industry is likewise responsible for the banter I interchanged with the four Indian people whose names I never got and for the girl I met in the hotel that might have been propositioning me, although then again maybe she wasn't, as I didn't try to find out.

I often compare this sort of occurence to getting stuck in an elevator with a bunch of strangers. I have always imagined that this could be a great experience, although one always would run the risk of finding two people quickly becoming enemies in a confined space or of someone smelling really bad. I have always hoped, however, that an entrapment of this sort would result in possibly short-lived, yet intense friendships, as seems to have been the case with Air France Flight 018, Paris to Newark, NJ.

It is now back to the "grind" for me, back to daily work and subways and schedules and responsibilities. It is with great excitement and hope however, that I undertake this next period of my life, having faith that time away and new experiences have provided me with a fresh viewpoint and state of mind that will allow me to live quotidian life with new vigor and open eyes.

17 January 2006

Still in Strasbourg

I head home early tomorrow morning--a train to Paris followed by a subway followed by a plane to Newark followed by a train followed by a subway home...

A bit more about Strasbourg:

The city is pretty, perhaps a bit too pretty. It looks like a movie set for a film filled with rosy-cheeked chubby boys and their fathers with big mustaches and noses happily reddened by kitsch or schnapps or something and mothers yodeling while they cook over an open fire.

I'm assuming that everyone in this town loves sausage, but this is merely speculation and is a completely untested theory, sort of like evolution.

Perhaps I could come to love this place with time. It certainly has its charm, and maybe I could live a quiet life here and eat warm, hearty bread every morning and ski in the winter and drink thick red wines and write and read and always have a fire in my fireplace.

It is hard to tell, really, because in my continuing state as a cripple, all of my thoughts are colored by the excruciating pain I feel with every step that I take, and so the beauty of the earthy-brown cathedral and the smell of freshly baked bread and the 700-year old buildings are all less interesting and amazing to me than they would normally be.

I have noticed, however, that the attitude of this place is much different from that of the rest of France. This is the Alsace, after all, a region that is historically closely tied to Germany (sometimes more honorably than others) and one feels this cultural difference very strongly. There is a certain Germanic sense of order here, of organization and cleanliness and quiet that one does not feel in Paris.

The climate here is quite different as well--snow and frost and chilly rain seem to be always present and yesterday's small amount of blue sky was heralded as a "beautiful day, a lucky day."

This may be my last post from abroad, as I catch the train to Paris tomorrow morning at 6:16 am and will be traveling nonstop until I reach home. Thank you for reading while I've been away, and keep on checking for more news upon my arrival in NYC.

Bike through window frames

16 January 2006


I'm in Strasbourg now, quite close to the German border.

This town is medieval (I think) and looks a lot like what you'd expect a small Swiss or German town to look like, much more than French. I haven't seen much yet, but I'll be sure to give a full report when I have.

I spent the last few days in Paris, quite a quiet time really. Unfortunately, having walked long distances barefoot in the Sahara has left me quite crippled. I did something terrible to my feet and I limp like a gimp everywhere that I go. This has obviously put a bit of a damper on attempts to see the sights of these beautiful cities.

What I have been doing with great success is eating. Moroccan food was wonderful, and I don't want to give the impression that it wasn't. However, to be completely honest, one grows tired of tagines and couscous and lamb after a few weeks. This is basically all that they eat in Morocco, it would seem.

France, on the other hand, is well deserving of it's gastronomical fame, and I am discovering this with each and every bite that I take.

I've enjoyed foie gras and fine cheeses and great wines and finally the other night I fulfilled my dream of eating Steak Tartare (see terrible photo below to get an idea of what it looks like). Steak Tartare is basically raw beef mixed with spices, sometimes with a cooked egg on top. My report on this dish: It's not bad, pretty good actually, but beef is better when cooked, in my opinion.

The foie gras here, while of course a cruel and immoral food, is delicious--rich and buttery and creamy and just plain fantastic. I've eaten it coupled with an onion chutney of sorts, spread on toasted bread...

I've also, as I've mentioned, been sucking down croque monsier sandwiches at a rate that I would not recommend for amateurs.

More soon once I've limped my way around this town.

13 January 2006

Paris (with update)

I'm in Paris with Hannah now...

Strange how such a foreign place can feel so much like home when compared with environs even more foreign. It took me a few minutes to realize that I wasn't back in New York again. Then I realized that Paris is much more beautiful than New York, and that everyone is speaking French here, and that it is difficult to find such a delicious croque monsieur on the streets of New York.

There is a possibility of a travel extension due to problems with flights, so I don't know when I'll be home. We'll see how it all works out.

More soon.

::: The airline fixed problems with the flight, and I will be in France until Wednesday, January 18th. Life is hard :::

12 January 2006

the real last post from morocco

About to run to catch my plane from Morocco...

Last night I went out for a final Moroccan Feast in the Plaza of Djeema El Fna, the main plaza of Marrakech, filled with food stands and entertainers...
I met a couple of Irish girls and sat after dinner for countless glasses of sugary Moroccan tea as we exchanged our observations about travel in Morocco...

Eating in the plaza is truly an experience, smoke pouring out of the grills as they cook meat and vegetables to order, people running every which way, the sounds of snake charmer flutes in the background, smells and sights and sounds mixing, creating a cacaphony of the senses...

11 January 2006

Some final words...

I'm exhausted after last night's journey (see below), so I'm back in the Internet cafe; too tired to deal with the souqs (markets) and sellers and snake charmers and orange juice salesmen...I'm just plain too tired for Marrakechi life.

I have made sure to make use of my time here and eat food that I love here or haven't tried yet. So, for food today, I've had a couple of cafe lattes, some sesame candy stuff, some snails in broth and a nice, cold glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Yum.

So, just a few final pictures from my final moments of this Moroccan journey.

Burned and Frozen

I have arrived back in Marrakech after the most hellish journey of my life. In the span of 20 hours yesterday, I was sunburnt in the Saraha and shivering in the frigid early morning of Marrakech. The journey that spanned the hours between these two places was one of Dante-like conditions--a bus ride that crossed a huge Moroccan mountain range, moving through snow and rain along winding mountain roads. Treacherous drops lined the road's edge at nearly all times.

Luckily, the monotony and discomfort of the bus ride was punctuated by the occasional fight, argument, or physical ejection of a passenger. Ahhhh...Morocco.

Since I've last written, a great deal has occured, and I've been through experiences that I never expected to live, even in Morocco. My last day in Tinhrir (where I last wrote on this page), Hannah and I met Hassat, a man who claimed to be 35 years old, but who had the face and body of a 60 year old...As is usual in Morocco, the border between fact and fiction is blurry in the case of this man, and while I was unsure of his motives for probably lying about his age, I gave the question little importance when sizing him up.

Hassat was a friendly man, and began talking to us in the street outside the hotel, inviting himself along with us for a tea, walking us to the internet and bus station, to the taxi stand (only to find that taxis were too expensive to visit the gorges as we wished to), and eventually back into the main town square (if one can even call it that). Finding our plans changed, as usual, we took up Hassat on his offer to see the local environs, the nearby oases and fields, and to eventually join him for dinner.

And so we walked with Hassat through paths that led us beside plots of alfalfa and olive trees, and beneath date palms and pomengranate trees. We walked for a few hours, occasionally glimpsing the town in the distance, discussing the most remote and separate topics, and learning about the local history.

At the end of our walk, we returned to town, and after a few stops at some local stores (in one of these stores, i traded in my old djilaba, or Moroccan hooded robe, for a different, much nicer one), walked through the now darkened, cold streets to the home of one of Hassat's friends. We entered to find a strange scene--five or six people crowded into a tiny room, all sitting on blankets and pillows, hunched close together and huddled around a small propane heater. They were nearly all smoking and drinking tea and laughing, and I wondered if they realized how odd and wonderful they all looked to me. I wondered if they knew that where I come from I would never sit so close to people, and would never share one glass among five people, and would probably strangle my friends and family if I were forced to live in such cramped conditions.

I'm assuming that they did not know all this, because we were invited to sit with great smiles and much fanfare, and told that we would stay for dinner, and offered tea and asked questions, and after a few short minutes, treated exactly as if we had always been there. And so, we ended up staying for a delicious tagine (we paid for the raw materials and the beer that the head of the household, a widowed woman requested), getting yelled at if we slowed down in our chewing --"Mange, Mange, Kool, Kool," the daughter would say, speaking to us in both French and Berber and making sure that we filled our bellies as much as possible.

Here in Morocco, families eat around a low table generally, sitting on pillows on the ground. There are no plates or forks or spoons and generally no personal cups or glasses. There is one huge plate of food in the middle of the table, one cup that gets passed around, and bread serves as both plate, spoon, fork and napkin. This is actually a very nice custom, and one which is easy to get used to, and has the effect of making any outsider feel like part of the family and bringing strangers together quite naturally.

So we stuffed ourselves with chicken and bread and vegetables and left with many kisses and goodbyes and thanks, and returned to the hotel sleepy and full.

The next day, Hannah had to leave on a bus to Tangier at around two pm, and I wanted to head out the desert, finally...I put Hannah on a bus, armed with a bag of yogurt and bread and sunflower seeds, and I went off, once again traveling alone, to find a way to get to the Sahara.

I was immediately accosted by a young man named Lhoussaine, who assured me that his brother had a hostel in Merzouga (right on the edge of the dunes that lead into the desert), that we could travel together, that the last transport for the day left in a few minutes, etc, etc, etc...The same story that I've heard a million times and which I've now learned to laugh at and find funny, and not to be offended by the obvious untruths and various lies contained therewithin. I decided to let myself be dragged along with this guy, figuring that the worst that could happen would be that I'd find myself at an expensive, shitty hostel, and be forced to pay a little extra for a little less...What did I have to lose?

As it turned out, I made the right decision in trusting Lhoussaine, who joined me in an adventure that led us eventually to Merzouga, the gateway to my desert experience...

We started off in a transport van, packed in so tightly that my legs and buttocks fell asleep, crushed beneath my own weight and the weight of others with me on the floor of the van. I was immediately attacked with questions about my nationality and language and clothing, asked questions in four different languages, taught various local Berber expressions, and invited to join some guys on the roof once we reached the dirt road outside of town.

I did so, and we stayed up there, smushed between oranges and baggage, as we bounced down the road, fighting to keep our hoods on our heads and the dust out of our eyes...Some guys smoked a hash joint--I begged out, explaining that Moroccan hash would send me on a journey I didn't wish to experience while hanging on for my dear life atop a bouncing cargo van. I chatted with all of them, laughing and joking, accepting their offers of slices of stolen oranges, unfortunately declining their offers to sleep at their houses, located at various points along the way to my final destination...

We eventually headed back inside, driven in by the falling hail or sleet or freezing rain or whatever the hell it was. We were welcomed back in with smiles, and everyone laughed when I showed them my bright red, chapped hands destroyed by the cold winds up above...I was soon asked to show my guitar and then to play it, and I did so, and everyone in the van joined in with clapping and banging and cheering. They asked for another and another and I played sitting on the floor, crushed by local legs, unable to move my arm, moving only my wrist...When I was offered some snuff, I once again declined, only to be nudged by Lhoussaine and told that by refusing I was being quite rude...So I accepted their offer and held out my hand as they poured a generous quantity of dark brown powder on the back and then I snorted it and damn did it burn...

They laughed as my eyes teared and nose burned and offered me tissues and the old man next to me explained to me the real way to do snuff, how both nostrils should be used, and I told him that I'd remember for next time.

We eventually left the van and took a few taxis and waited in a few small towns and finally got out of the last taxi on a dark street before a large open field. I followed Lhoussaine's directions and began walking across the dark, muddy field with him, seeing only a few distant lights on the horizon.

It was at this point that I thought, "If my parents knew where I was right now, and with whom, and what I was doing, they would shit their pants." But Morocco changes one's ideas of trust and honesty and danger and risk, and I felt completely at ease at that moment, walking through a muddy field toward a distant, unknown destination with some guy that I had only met that morning. That's just how it is here, and you learn to accept it and relax or you spend your entire time suffering from attacks of anxiety.

We arrived at a beautiful building and I was given tea and shown to my own room with a hot shower and a lot of blankets and a couch, and after a little while with other travelers and locals, I fell into a deep slumber in the bed, and I didn't get up until late the next morning.

In the morning, I met Hisham, the man who would be leading me through the desert. He told me to pack a bag and get ready to go, so I quickly drank my coffee and got ready, and within a few minutes we were in the desert, me on the camel, Hisham on the ground, walking with the camel's tether in his hand, talking to me about trust and love and local history and the desert and his son in Spain and all sorts of things that I've surely forgotten by this point.

I only lasted a short while on the camel, unable to deal with the constantly bumping and pressure on my buttocks and the ole' family jewels, and soon joined Hisham barefoot in the sand, walking along, amazed and awed by the beauty and immensity of the desert, which was at this point not even complete, as we had just barely left civilization behind.

We soon reached a small oasis and joined up with a French couple and a Dutch guy, as well as the two other guides, Abdelah and Hassan. We ate a delicious lunch of olives and salad and canned tuna fish with flat Berber bread and headed off into the depths of the sand dunes of the Sahara.

I don't want to write too much about the Sahara. I'm not sure that I could conceive of any words, at least my words, that could possibly describe this place. First, the dunes are huge, really, really huge. We walked up the second highest sand dune in the world in fact, and I was exhausted by the time I reached the top. What is truly amazing about the place, however, is not the size of the dunes, but their shape, the way that the wind carves their sharp lines, and the shadows created when the sun hits them.

Looking around, it was nearly all sand. In the far distance, off to the east, lay the red rock mountains that make up the heavily militarized Morocco-Algeria border. There is no human creation in sight--no houses or cars or factories--there is sand and there is rock and there is sun, and nothing else.

Through this landscape we walked for hours, feeling the sun beat on our face (the air was not hot but the sun was merciless) and then feeling the cold chill our bones when the sun went down--the fastest sunset and the most drastic temperture changes that I have yet experienced anywhere in the world...

On the second day, we walked through the "black desert", which is more rock and stone than sand, and somehow much harsher, much more obviously desert, even if it is not made up of sand as one would expect. Beneath our feet were fossils, constant and never-ending supplies of fossils, making the irony of the Saraha's oceanic past something to consider with each and every step that we took. A few hearty plants stood, brown and still along the way, most dead and gone, but some eking out a life somehow in this deadly environment.

We passed small abandoned villages along the way, left to the mercy of the wind and the sand when the water in the area dried up and people were forced to leave. The date palms of what were once oases were now cracked and dried and falling over themselves. The inhabitants of these villages have inevitably gone to the slums of larger cities, adding to the worldwide problem of the rural poor's forced immigration into urban centers.

These ghost towns are eerie, as ghost towns always are, and seem somehow like an architectual version of the skeletons that one always sees in pictures of the American desert. I shivered a bit every time that we passed through one, and was always happy to be once again in the natural and strange empty landscape, away from all traces of humanity.

We finally arrived at a small town near Merzouga called Hamalia. The inhabitants of the town are all dark black, being the descendants of slaves brought to Morocco many years ago. These people continue to work to maintain their cultural patrimony, and with the drying up of this region of the Saraha, have turned to tourism as one of their sources of income, presenting their music and dance to the few tourists that make it to their village with the dromedary caravans each day. Their performance was incredible, nearly all religious and all very moving. I spent the rest of the night talking and playing music with the various members of the group, eventually falling asleep and waking the next morning (yesterday) to begin my trip back to Merzouga and finally back to Marrakech for my flight to Paris, from where I will return home in a few days.

And so here I am, back in Marrakech, alone and sad to be departing. Today is the fete, and due to the need to eventually catch my flight, I was unable to get to Ourzazate today to celebrate with my friends there. Nearly all transport and most shops, restaurants, etc, are not running or are closed, and so Marrakech is quiet, the streets mostly filled with tourists and some Moroccans...

It all comes to an end, and I am truly sad to leave, thinking only of when I will return next, how long I will be away from here, and of all that I have lived in the last few weeks. I feel that this place has changed me in a way that most places have not. It has been a long time since I have been so inspired and moved by a people and a place and a voyage, and I can't discount the importance of this.

06 January 2006

Fitting In...

Lame to be in Morocco constantly updating the blog, but certain necessities have required the use of the internet...So while I'm here anyway, I'll take advantage and share a few pictures...

I got a haircut today and while there I also decided to get a shave and sport a mustache...


I've been looking back at my last post, and I'm amazed that such a strange and wonderful experience could translate so badly in written words. I apologize for the somewhat insipid prose. If I were to give an excuse, it would merely contain an explanation of the environment in which I was working, so very non conducive to writing.

Personal space and privacy are shifting entities, meaning very different things in different places, as I've found here. A wonderful trait that I've found in Moroccans, as I've said before, is extreme friendliness and generosity. As in all cultures, however, one's best trait is often one's worst trait, and suffering beneath the extreme friendliness of a local while attempting to concentrate on writing can be challenging...And so in my last post, every other sentence, unseen to the reader, was interrupted by friendly chit-chat between me and those around me. I offer this explanation as an excuse for the disjointed nature of the this last update.

Having finally dealt with the vehicle, the rest of my time in Ourzazate went well. The Germans and I shared a final meal in our rented apartment with a friend Hisham (who we sort of met during the entire vehicular adventure), who promptly fell in love with one of the girls. The dinner was delicious, as Hisham took the helm of the kitchen, unhappy with my Western cooking methods, and whipped us up a delicious tagine (honestly one of the only things eaten here).

Our new friend's infatuation with my German friend seemed rather strange to me, when I heard of the hints that he had made to her regarding marriage, I was rather suprised...I soon found out, however, that this is not strange here. I've also met people that openly tell me how their mother arranged their marriage, how a wedding can be planned from one day to the next...I met a guy last night who hopes to marry (Inshallah) this summer, although he has yet to meet the lucky girl. As Hannah said to me, I respect local traditions and social interactions, but this is just plain weird to me, and hard for me to comprehend.

Coming from the US, where both parents and children are itching for geographical separation around the 18th birthday of the offspring, it is tough for me to wrap my head around the existence of homes where up to 40 family members live together (I met a man yesterday who lives in a home with 39 people--brothers, wives, mothers, children, cousins, etc.) Marriage is patriarchal here, and the wife is expected to leave her home to live with the husband's family immediately upon marriage. From that point on, she is the "responsibility" of the husband's family. These huge families often live in the Kasbah, old neighborhoods connected by familiar relations, filled with huge, sprawling, mazelike homes of many rooms.

I had the chance to visit a house in the Kasbah yesterday in which an entire family is dedicated to the creation of beautiful and highly symbolic carpets...I bought myself a "marriage carpet" made by Fatima, one of the artisans working in this family cooperative...Unfortunately, I like it too much to sell it, and my plans to create a carpet-selling business in the States have yet to become even close to a reality.

Talking with people has been interesting in these smaller towns of the South...There are huge differences between the South and North, difficult to detect by the foreigner, but incredibly obvious to Moroccans...Most of the people that I've met down here are Berbers, and distinguish between themselves and Arabs, a difference that Western eyes would find difficult to notice. Nonetheless, the language is different, clothing is different, social interactions are different...I was told yesterday for instance, that in Berber tradition, there is unity and equality between the man and woman. I've been told (both here and at home, as popular prejudices inform us) that this is not the case in the Arab society...

I am currently in Tinerhir, in the region of the Tudra gorge, which is said to be the largest gorge in all of Morocco. We are near to the largest salt mine in all of Africa as well as a very large Silver mine. Both of these materials supply the region with much of its income. From here I plan to trace a large oval that will bring me to Merzouga (home of the evasive Saharan expeditions of which I've spoken so much) and then through the Draa Valley back to Ourzazate for the January 11th fete.

People here are already earnestly preparing for next Wednesday, and I've seen markets dedicated to the sale of live sheep, which can cost a person here about 2,000 dirham; which is approximately 200 euros (240 dollars or so), a large sum by local standards. Hisham, my friend in Ourzazate, has invited me to pass the day with his family, and he tells me (and other verify) that he is the resident expert in the butchering of the lambs...This promises to be a bloody affair, and I plan to warn all readers of the potentially upsetting nature of the photographs I plan to take...

I hope that all are well, more to come soon....

05 January 2006

Driving to the Sahara???

Yet another day in which I learn two things:

1. Plans are not something one makes and keeps in Morocco
2. Moroccans are impossible to describe, shifting, confusing, and fascinating.

Two days ago, I rented a car in the town of Essaouira with three other people...Hannah, Yvonne and Suzanne. I met Hannah in Meknes and we have been traveling together ever since. Yvonne and Suzanne are two friends of Hannah's from Germany that arrived about a week ago.

So we rented this car with the plan to drive to the desert, rent some camels and enlist the help of some guides, and head into the desert for a truly Moroccan, Saharan experience. We almost made it.

The renting of the car itself was an adventure...As always, someone that we met knew someone (a cousin) that could help us. The guy opened the store for us, we debated the price for an hour (normal here) and we were on our way.

The drive began smoothly and perfectly. We hit the road in our beautiful Volkswagen, turned up the Arabic tunes and began quickly eating up the miles between us and our destination.

Arriving in Marrakech, things got a bit hairy, as here in Morocco traffic patterns are something like an afterthought and nobody seems to find it important to follow them. I found myself stuck in intersections in which cars pointed in every possible direction. Fumes in my face, horns in my ears, motorbikes whizzing by...Somehow, we made it out of the town alive and unscathed and continued on our way...

Here in the South of Morocco it is becoming more and more normal to find people that don't speak any French at all, something that can make the trip rather difficult, but which I find rather refreshing...It's somehow nice to see that not everyone has a need to learn the language of the invader, of the opressor, of the colonizer...Still, I don't think that this is in any way a conscious choice on the part of the Moroccans, but rather a problem of education in the hinterlands of the country.

And so, when we found ourselves in a truck stop outside of Marrakech, I had to laugh at the beauty of the sitution...Opening my journal and beginning to write, I was shocked to read the title of the entry -- "January; 2006, Truck Stop outside of Marrakech." It all just seems rather surreal at times...Due to the lack of linguistic understanding between us and the proprietors of the establishment, we eventually ended up eating, after pointing at things that others had and that looked good...Everything was delicious...

Moving along, we arrived in the town of Ourzazate without any problems at all. Ourzazate is sort of Morocco's Hollywood, so everyone here is constantly talking about Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe and Brad Pitt...rather strange really....The town itself is nothing all that exciting, but it serves as a sort of gateway to the desert for many tourists, and so, tired from the long drive, we decided to spend the night...

Yesterday morning we woke up, drank coffee, checked email quickly and got on the road...And the problems began...

The car began acting funny...I would floor the gas pedal and very little would happen. I could not accelerate to pass other vehicles, everything seemed sluggish, and I could feel that somehow the gasoline was not getting where it needed to get. We debated our options--continue and find a gas station, or turn back the 25 kilometers already driven and find a station in town? I finally decided to pull over on the side of the road next to a truck and ask them about the possibility of finding a gas station further down the road.

As we pulled off the road, the car stopped. It just died right there, half on the road, half off, and refused to start again. After a few minutes, we got out and pushed it off the road...

The next 5 hours or so were spent on the side of the road...The truckers tried to help us, then some other guys tried to help us (and sell us a camel trek at the same time...a bit of shotgun diplomacy it seemed at the time--sort of "hey, i'll help you if you buy my really, really expensive services"), then another car stopped...

At one point there were about ten people on the side of the road, everyone with a different opinion about our options and the causes of the car troubles...The hood went up and the hood went down, the key was turned and unturned, various parts of the car were smacked and caressed, laughed at and cursed at...We finally decided on an option that seemed rather unintelligent to me, but at the time was the only option: We would wait for a 4-wheel drive vehicle of one guy's friend and tie the two cars together...I would then sit in the driver's seat of our car and steer while the Truck pulled us the 25 kilometers back home...

And so we waited...We hung out and drew pictures and took photographs and accepted the invitation of the truckers to join them in their lunch...They had been cooking a tagine in a pressure cooker atop a propane stove for a couple of hours and were more than happy to invite everyone present to join them in their meal...And so we sat in a circle around the food, dipping into the rich sauce with bread, sharing cups of water and attepting to add something to the general pot of food...all we found was some cheese (they laughed at us) and yogurt (they ate it).

By this point we were all quite calm, having come to terms with our fate and realizing that the best thing to do was relax, enjoy this time with our new friends and hope for the best (As one guy said, we could plan a meeting like this and it would never happen. It is the coincidence that brings us together like this and that is beautiful).

Finally the truck arrived and we said our goodbyes and tied up and I nearly shit my pants as we moved about one minute down the winding road, the guy next to me yelling at me not to touch the brake, me freaking out and sweating and shaking, knowing something would go wrong, and then the rope broke with little fanfare and we were coasting slowly along.

We now enlisted the help of some metal workers that tried to connect the car with a steel rod. The effect was basically the same as that of the rope experiment, and we ended up once again on the side of the road. By this time, our friends were getting rather impatient. The camel guy wanted us to leave the car on the road, where a friend would watch over it until a tow truck to come (there is only one in the area and it was 5 hours away). We were obviously nervous about doing so, and refused to leave until we could get in touch with the owner of the rental agency...

Finally we spoke with Khalid, the car rental guy, and after much argument, he agreed to let us leave the car on the side of the road with this guy Mohammed, who would make sure it got towed and then call a friend in Ourazate that would bring the car back to Essaouira after it was fixed...

Here's where things got a bit weird, and here's where the strange and wonderful behavior of Moroccans come into play...Driss, the guy that wanted us to go to the desert with him and take a camel trek, started to get a bit impatient and a bit agressive...He told us that if we didn't leave the car at that very moment and go to the desert with him, he was going to leave...We weighed our options--overpriced camel trek or abandonment on the side of the road????

Could we just pay him to drive us back to Ourazate?, we asked him.

No, he said, and told us that he didn't want our money but that his friend would gladly bring us back to town for free, that everything he had done (5 hours of work) he was happy to do and that he expected no payment in return...He merely asked that upon our return to town we visit his shop and speak with his brother about tour possibilities in the future:

So then, this guy brings us back to town, drives us on a tour of the beautiful, old sections, and drives to his aunt's house. His aunt gives us delicious tea and homemade lemon cake and almonds grown on her land. We sit on luxurious carpets in a sprawling room in her house and munch away and chat and laugh together. We then drove to the store owned by Driss and his brother, drink more tea, haggle for prices and buy a few nice items.

I just don't get these people...just when I begin to lose faith and feel that a man like Driss, who seemed so kind and generous, is merely helping me to make money, he proves me wrong...Now, of course, we did visit his shop and buy some stuff, but very little, and this is a small price to pay for the help that he gave us and the time that we shared together...

So now, having once again had my plans destroyed, having once again experienced firsthand the strange generosity of Moroccans, having once again made new friends, I'm still in Ourzazate, destination unknown. I've been invited by a guy here, Hisham, to spend the 11th of January with his family here, for the religious festival known as Al-Eid adhaa, in which every family in Morocco (and most of the Muslim world) sacrifices a lamb and has a huge party. So, I guess this means that I'll be in this region for the next few days, checking out the desert and the gorges (maybe) and hoping that time moves as slowly as possible...

04 January 2006

Heading to the Sahara

Dear All,

I have very little time to write at the moment, so this is merely a quick message that will serve to assure all of my safety and inform of my upcoming plans...

I rented a car yesterday in Essaouira, famous for having been the home of Jimi Hendrix for a time. I have now reached the town of Ourzazate and I hope to reach the Gorges de Drades in a few hours. From there I will head to the Sahara.

I hope to be able to write more this evening. Thanks to all for reading and for your comments as well...

More to come (with pictures) asap


01 January 2006

And so it's a new year...

Happy New Year to all...

I rang in the beginning of this new era with some tough-to-chew beef, french fries, mustard and a nice cold glass of water. I substituted fireworks and countdowns for the ever-interesting spectacle of drunkards giving each other shit, banging on tables, and generally proving that people not used to drinking alcohol should do so only in moderation.

I am in Marrakech now, about 6 hours farther south than I was before (in Meknes). I arrived last night after a long, yet interesting train ride in the company of Hannah (the German girl with whom I've been traveling for a couple of days) and a bunch of people we met on the train.

I can pretty surely say that I have never before been privy to such an interesting train ride as yesterday's. Soon after getting in the train, we met a peace corps volunteer (Tia), a highly paid DJ (DJ Hassan), and a few other Moroccans, all very nice. The stars above our train car must have been well-aligned, for our car immediately became a center of conversation, laughter and learning. For the next 5 hours or so, we discussed religion, music, politics and culture. While I have until now refrained from discussing either religion or politics with Moroccans, this was the perfect forum for all types of commentary, and I learned a great deal and had a very interesting time.

My French is improving rapidly, so I was able to understand nearly all of the crash course on Islam afforded to me by DJ Hassan and the others. I was also able to speak with him at length about mixing, nightclubs and House music. Obviously this was an environment of varying themes, and at one point I even looked over to find Hannah and another Moroccan guy discussing euthanasia, polygamy and other controversial themes that even many homogenous groups of Americans would avoid for fear of excessive confrontation. In short, there was little yesterday of the stereotypical "fanatical Islam" of which so many Americans are afraid.

People here, in fact, have continually surprised me in their generosity, openness and spirit of friendship. I've received a number of invitations to family homes, been taken on a tour of Meknes by friends that were nearly in tears at my departure, and been led through dark, winding streets by crippled drunks that refused any offer of remuneration for their assistance...Many people truly want to offer their aid, and truly do what they do out of the goodness of the heart...I have been told that in part this stems from a belief that Allah may appear at any time as a stranger or foreigner, and it is therefore a good idea to be kind to travelers and to offer your charity to them. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but the effect is the same...

There are, of course, people with more poisoned hearts that at times cause the hairs on my neck to stand straight to the sky and my heart to beat rapidly...There are still, as in any country, drug addicts and people wishing to capitalize on the ignorance, innocence and fear of foreign travelers...Last night, for instance, a young guy, maybe 17 or so, offered to show us the way to our hotel. I told him we had no money to tip him, he said not to worry and showed us the way...Of course he then asked for money and when we said no, he angrily invited us to engage in sexual congress with our mothers...unpleasant, to say the least, but this kind of person is certainly not the rule in Morocco.

In part I believe that this sort of attitude and these types of actions are caused by the general touristy nature of Marrakech...This is, at first glance, a fascinating city--the Morocco of pop culture and American imagination. This is the Morocco of snake charmers, trained monkeys and stands packed with dates, olives and oranges. This is the Morocco of henna and palm readers and all the other things that you think of when you think of Morocco...Of course much of this is fabricated for foreign tourists, but interestingly enough, we are the minority here and the locals seem to far outnumber the camera carrying jet-setters. Still, it is only natural that a large number of tourists will of course create a group of poor people that will find ways to make money off of them, and be angry if this does not work...

Morocco is a land of contrasts, as I mentioned in my first few days here. These contrasts, however, are not merely visual (traditionally clothed elderly men on cell phones, veiled women sipping Coca-Cola), but rather interior as well, at least from my point of view. Never before have I experienced such ups and downs in a trip, such moments of pure exhiliration and comfort and happiness nor such moments of nervousness and anxiety and at times, disgust...Walking through the streets here, I sometimes smell something and I don't know if the smell is beautiful or absolutely horrifying. My gag reflex competes with hunger pangs and I leave the scene of the smell confused and disoriented...This is Morocco for me--a land of contrasts and confusion and wonderment.

Soon I will head into the desert, where I hope to take a camel trek and see the beautiful sand dunes of the Sahara at Erg Chebbi...I've been told that this place is like another world--totally surreal and like nothing else. It seems like a good idea to start the New Year with a bit of a visual and emotional jumpstart and...

Be well. More to come.