Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stunning news from Cambodia

I often think I should resurrect my blog here between our trips, about which this usually features. I am usually not inspired enough to write though and don't want to simply babble.

However I was shocked enough to learn of the incident in Phnom Penh yesterday to think it deserved some commentary. As we spent several days in the capital city of Cambodia 3 years ago and I actually titled an earlier post about that visit Cambodian Horror Show because of the trouble we had with the stolen back pack with passports etc in it, it seems pretty trivial to describe our incident that way now. In fact even back then I alluded to that as we still were comparatively very well off compared to the trials and hardships this country has gone through.

Ok, Pakistani floods, Haiti earthquakes and Indonesian tsunamis also don't really compare with the 350 or so dead in the crush of people on that bridge in Cambodia, but the scale of this is still absolutely horrific. We actually were in the city during the Water Festival on our trip though that was purely accidental as we were travelling at a time or year that works well for us and just happened to put us there. The festival is timed to coincide with the full moon at the end of rainy season as this lowland country depends so much on the flow of water to nurture the fields and provide means of transport and livelihood.

Phnom Penh bursts at the seams with visitors during the Water Festival. Imagine a Woodstock music festival, or New Years Eve in Times Square, but spread over 3 days. As mentioned in my earlier posts we almost did not get back into the city when we returned from Siem Reap as the police were restricting access because of the crowded city (doubling in size) during the height of the festivities. Maybe they should have been doing the same on that bridge?

In fact we found the police to be not well organized there (understatement) overall, but I don't know that they could have done much to prevent this tragedy. The bridges over the wide and slow Tonle Sap and Mekong are long and relatively narrow, and I can just imagine the crowds on the pedestrian bridge to Diamond Island where this occurred. I don't recall seeing this bridge, but I do remember the crowds along the river very close to our hotel being practically impenetrable even on wide thoroughfares.

We made some nice friends in Cambodia when we were there and they might have been very close to this. I can only imagine what they might have gone though.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Paris in a week.

So what is 1878 km from Casablanca...

 and 5517 km from Montreal? Give up? 


It's the Eiffel Tour of course!

It's about time I wrapped up this travelogue since we left Morocco 2 weeks ago and have been home for 3 days. I may still go back to do some editing of previous posts and will be working with my pictures (about 2000 of them) and uploading some to Flickr. 

In Paris we had a small apartment for the week we were there. It belongs to a connection of Linda's through work, and we not only were sharing it for most of the time we were there, it had been paid for last year. Paris can be very expensive for accommodation and food and the apartment helped on both fronts as we could (and did) cook there. The location in Belleville, in the 20th Arrondisement, was not "downtown" but not far and we had a metro stop about 2 blocks away so access was great. There is a bus which runs from a few blocks further away that practically doubled as a poor person's tour of some of the major sites as it passes the site of the Bastille, Hotel de Ville, the Louvre, and Notre Dame before it let us off at Champs de Mars practically under the Eiffel Tour. 

We shared the apartment in Paris with Adalina and Emily, and they joined us on a lot of our sightseeing ventures as well. Linda joined them on some of their shopping trips while I spent more time in the Louvre and listened to pipe organ practice in the amazing example of Gothic architecture, L’église Saint-Eustache, getting my culture fix.


The Louvre was amazing of course, but overwhelming. The only way to really appreciate it would be to live in Paris and have a season's pass or something so you could come again and again.  I only managed to have a couple of hours there before my feet and head started to hurt so I had to get out. The crowds did not help either. Check out this room where if you are lucky you might be able to tell that is Mona in the background:

In Paris there is obviously lots to see that is not inside a museum exactly. Notre Dame (love those gargoyles!) for example is still an active church, Sacre Coeur as well and while they are from different eras they are both impressive. Wandering a region like Montmartre or going down into the Catacombs where the bones of millions are on display, walking along the Champs Elysees, or exploring the Père Lachaise Cemetery looking for graves of Jim Morrison (decorated in flowers album covers and liquor bottles) or Oscar Wilde (desccrated one could say by many lipstick kisses and inaccurate quotes from the writer) , strolling the Seine, or just lingering over a coffee and a pastry in a cafe (even if it is a MacCafe - which is what the Champs Elysees MacDonalds is called)...it's still Paris!

It feels different. It's modern and ancient at the same time, cosmopolitan, civilized and bohemian in like measure.  If you can get away from (most of) the tourists and hang around a neighbourhood such as we stayed in it can get pretty cozy pretty quickly. Amazingly good and still warm croissants for breakfast, all the cheese and butcher shops you could ever need, and more than enough cheap (though not tasting cheap) wine than you can ever consume. Our neighbourhood had food markets and crafts for sale on the street, and music and guerrilla theater, plus World Cup soccer on view everywhere you went.   

And those rumours of rudeness by Parisians? Mostly unfounded, I would say. My French is not too bad, but Linda's is worse than bad and Adalina and Emily are about on par with Linda I expect. I was their guide and translator much of the time but just as much tried to let them go it alone and they did just fine. At least they seemed to make out fine, coming home with food and souvenirs and clothing from their trips without me and with no harm done.   

We managed to keep our costs down in Paris, cheapskates that we are, by eating our suppers mostly at home in the apartment or by grabbing food in the Latin Quarter. We did not visit quite as many museums or other major sites as we might have, the Musee D'Orsay for example was one I regretted not getting to, but other places might wait for another visit.

Somewhat unexpectedly we had visitors in Paris. My brother Peter came in via train from eastern Europe and his wife Siew-Kim and daughter Sabrina arrived a day later from Halifax. It was good to see them and hang out around the apartment and Paris with my favourite 13 year old niece (only 13 year old niece?), who obviously appreciates the Louvre as well!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not so Easy Jet to Paris & Abdou, The Taxi Fare Killer

Our second to last day in Morocco was spent getting to Agadir from Essouira via bus. It's about 3 hours but in a less comfortable bus than the Marrakesh route, with no air-con for one. The road is quite winding, and drifts away from the coast for quite a bit and climbs before the final corkscrew descent into Agadir.

As I mentioned before, Agadir was only on the agenda to act as our departure point to Paris. The flight by EasyJet was only $60 each, and was supposed to only take 3 hours. Supposed to...

Agadir was much as I expected, clean and groomed, and not very exotic in appearance or apparent culture. It caters to tourists mostly plus conferences and conventions like Vegas. We did find another Vegas-like attribute that we had yet to see anywhere else in Morocco: street drunkenness.

Anyway, on arrival we had a guy approach to offer his taxi service. Not knowing where it was or how far and being tired sweaty and hungry we quickly agreed to take his cab, for 50 dirham. Before we reached the car the diver (Abdou) got into a huge verbal fight with the other drivers who accused him of stealing their fare, and undercutting. Apparently the going rate was 100 dirham, and they (he said) even offered him 20 to leave us so they could prey on us.

Abdou also agreed to take us to the airport the next morning at a prearranged time, as we had an early flight. We knew the usual rate for this and agreed to his rate of 150, and the airport being quite far out of town it was not unreasonable. Abdou asked my name, and had trouble with it, so I became "Abdou 2" to his "Abdou 1".

Our hotel La Petite Suede was about average for our trip, and right in the restaurant district which was handy. We  headed out and had the most western meal yet, Pizza and Lasagna! And it was served professionally and cleanly by smart looking waiters. But they were interrupted by the obnoxious drunk walking (barely) down the street. No big deal, but he did get hauled away to the drunk tank. The only reason I even mention it though is that the event was so rare, the only open drunkenness we saw by local, as I think this guy was, or tourist.

The next morning Abdou showed up right on time, but it turns out that Abdou may have given a good price on the fare the day before, but he made up for it today. He picked up another guy (Abdou 3), whom he was charging the same rate PLUS he drove to his home once he had all of us and we switched with baggage  to his own personal car. It seemed like triple dipping in that he would not have to report the fare and it turned out he would not actually dive into the airport proper so he did not get seen. At least we got there in plenty of time, and then some...

Our flight was not due to leave until 10-ish, but turned out to be delayed by 3 hours so did not leave until 1:30. There's not a lot to do in the Agadir airport, though we did get curious about an American Air Force C-130 sitting on the tarmac with some military types hanging around. Counting Morocco hotel to Paris apartment our travel time that day amounted to almost 12 hours. I did enjoy my conversation with my seatmate (not Linda) though. He had been attending a conference as a whale researcher working for an NGO in Edinburgh, and since he was an ex-patriot Canadian from Vancouver we had some thing to talk about. As it turned out we know some of the same people though he has not lived in Canada for 20 years.

Our trip to Morocco thus came to an end, and though a bit sad to leave, it was only a bit. Next phase, Paris.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Food Topics

Some people have been asking "what is this tajine thing you keep talking about?", so maybe I should describe it again. It's a 2 part cooking dish that looks like this:

Sorry about stealing someone else's image, but I don't have a good one handy. Traditionally a meal is cooked in this over a fire and often on its own charcoal based burner. However nowadays it is not necessarily the vessel that the cooking is done in so much as the way the food is spiced and served.

As far as Morocco goes it is as common as bread. Many restaurants serve little but tajine, and though the meat in it might vary, the basic recipe does not. The next most common foods are the flat bread and olives that come with everything, and the Moroccan salad, which is a simple mix of finely chopped tomatoes and onions with perhaps some cucumber and maybe a simple dressing. You can also get almost everywhere brochette, basically meat grilled on a stick, or maybe brochette sandwiches. some of which are made with french fries inside. They do make good fries here, though don't always have much on them.

Tajines pots are also often available in small sizes for spices or ornamental purposes. This style is very commonly used to hold salt, pepper and cumin for use at the table, cumin being as commonly used as, well...salt and pepper.


The tajines often have several vegetables cooked with the meat, or maybe without meat, carrots and potatoes being most common and they arrive at the table sizzling hot. 

Cous cous we had less that we would have liked. For starch purposes, we got tired of bread and fries but cous cous was not as common as we thought it would be and when it was served it was sometimes served to feed 4 and we did not want that much food. when we did have it, we did enjoy it though.

At places near the coast we aimed for fish, and it was typically very simply prepared too, with sometimes a basic batter but often just grilled with perhaps a bit of salt.  In Marrakesh we had snails several times as a snack, twice one day. Served in a peppery broth, a dish like this cost about a dollar, and came on a Christmas tree tray at no extra charge.


As for drinks, water was the norm when it was not coke or orange juice or coffee. The O.J. was always fresh squeezed, and the coffee always good and strong and often a cafe au lait, for under a dollar. As far as alcohol was concerned Morocco is not exactly a dry country, but almost so.

You can get booze in the major cities if you try hard hard enough, and maybe small centers if you know the right people. We did not try hard, or know the right people, so after almost 3 weeks when we found out that Essouira had a an alcohol shop we searched it out. Lonely Planet did not quite have the location right but were not far off so we did find it. Twice in the 3 days we had beer in that town, but we were still discreet back at our Riad with it.

Anyway after weeks of this and similar food, when we got to Marrakesh we actually had pizza at a place a block from our hotel. It was great but also happened to spiced with cumin of all things. And in Agadir, on the last night we had good old pasta, and lasagna!

Oh yeah the last night...next post.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Windy city of fish, fortresses and surf dudes

First time writing on a bus, but obviously wireless networks are fleeting at best, so this gets uploaded later. At least the bus is comfortable and we have the deluxe seats, first row by the door. The seats on the interurban buses, or at least the Supratour buses operated by the ONCF (the rail network) on this route are assigned seating and since we bought our tickets 3 days ago, we were given seats 3 & 4. There are 2 Nederlanders in 1 & 2 with whom we occasionally chat along the way, mostly regarding the quirks of traveling here.

Leaving Marrakesh for Essaouira right now, a 3.5 hour ride, probably with no camel roadblocks but maybe some donkeys and certainly lots of mopeds. Marrakesh has been delightfully refreshing weather wise and unseasonably so. Last week the temperature was in the 40's but this week it has been in the 20's and the teens at night. In fact it even rained on us a bit sometimes which did not bother us one bit. Essouira might be even nicer due to the coastal location.

The buses are also pretty organized and this bus at least modern and air conditioned. As is common we have to listen to local music which is a little too loud but we have had a lot worse in Asia. It would be nice if they told you that you have to buy luggage tickets when you buy the bus ticket, but at least they do tag the bags under the bus.  We will be spending 3 days in Essouira and then one night in Agadir before flying to Paris. Essouira has a climate approaching that of California, but probably closer to that San Francisco to Los Angeles and maybe a bit warmer. As far as cities go there are probably other parallels in that Essouira is more laid back and an older city. Agadir was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1960’ s and was reconstructed in a modern grid pattern and made into a modern touristy town catering to package tours. We will see soon in any case.

Arriving in Essouira and finding our hotel, Riad Nakhla, was pretty easy. The town is not that big and the bus stopped about 100 meters from the place, as the seagull flies, though we had to walk quite a bit further to find a gate through the ancient fortifications and puzzle out the usual maze of narrow and not well marked streets of the medina.  As usual there were lots of touts trying the sell their hotel and guys with carts to carry bags, but we got clear of them soon.

Once again it is a very pretty place though you would never know it from outside. Lonely Planet again pointed us to the one and got it right this time. If we were one floor higher we would probably have a tiny bit of view of the ocean, which we do get from the roof top terrace.

I could not see them when I took the picture below, but when I zoomed in later I could see a vast array of wind turbines in the hazy background. If the wind we experienced is any indication of how much or how often it blows here, I can't think of a better place for wind power generation. (this is a good opportunity to remind you that you can click on any image to see it larger, though all images have been resized to be smaller than original)

Our first sight of the ocean was from a bluff overlooking the town when the bus driver obligingly slowed down to allow some gawking though did not stop for photos before we descended. One side of town seems to be all new hotels and maybe apartments close to a sandy beach. The old town is largely surrounded by a wall and towers near a rockier shore and even has cannons in place along parts of the fortifications. There is a smaller fort on a tiny island in the harbour and between it and the old town the fishing boats dock at a protected pier.

Essouira changed hands and names number of times between Sultans, Portugal and France before becoming Moroccan in 1956 when the country became independent from France. Now it is somewhat touristy, but in a laid back way and with its wind and waves is quite a surfing hangout. We can see lots of kite surfing going on though, other than a board deserted on the beach, no board surfing so far. The waves are not that high right now but I am sure they get that that way. 

2 days later...

We have walked every street of this town's medina by now, many of them a number of times. I think we are shopped out now, but have made some friends of a carpet salesman, Ahmed, and a local artist Tibari. We bought work from both of them because we liked them, as well as the stuff they had for sale. The young painter spends his mornings on the beach and loves to surf, and even he said today is windy. The season is getting going he thought. Windy it sure is, and that is probably one reason this does not turn into more of a Club Med. 

As it is, you can still see the attraction for tourists and locals alike. It's more relaxed here and the climate, aside from the wind and obvious coolness that can bring depending on the season, makes it pretty darn comfortable. 
The town reminds us of Greece or maybe a coastal Italian or French town, perhaps Portugal, which is apropos as it was controlled by Portugal at one time. The ramparts are a great frame to the white washed stone houses and the surf and rocks and fishing docks give it another element we have not seen elsewhere but are familiar to us from other places we know. The blue dories and larger boats bring in the catch that helps make Morocco the world's top exporter of sardines, and haul in lots of other types of fish as well.

We have seen scampi, turbot, Dorado, sole, eels, lobster, shrimp, squid, sardines, and we think small shark on the docks and in the markets, plus others we don't know the names of. Here we have eaten Dorado, sardines, sole, calamari and baby squid (the cute ones), and in Marrakesh we ate eel as well. I think the sardines and the eel were my favourite

Our first meal here was in the fish souq where the best way to get you meal is to buy it from the vendor and then walk deeper in to have it cooked at the stalls in the back. They do that for you for 30 dirham, and provide you with some salad and bread to go with it. We did not realizes that was the way you should do it, but instead walked in past the stalls and sat down to order food, so the guy then went out to buy the fish and prepare it. Same arrangement except the prices is a bit higher. In a few minutes the fish (about 15 sardines and 2 dorado) arrive grilled with a bit of salt and you eat it with your hands dipped in some hot sauce, accompanied by the ubiquitous flat bread and Moroccan salad, and the almost as common Coca Cola.

Later that day we had fish again, only this time we had it on the water front and here they weighed it in front of you at set prices which were posted clearly and did much the same in the preparation and presentation. The guy who met us here also spoke English well and was able to show exactly how it worked. In the souq I had trouble making myself understood, and I am not sure it was my French or his.

Essouira is also the site of an annual music festival devoted to Gnaoua music which is a mixture of Berber, Arabic and other North African styles and is probably the closest you can come to an indigenous Moroccan music. It attracts artists and fans from around the world, including jazz, reggae and pop musicians. Unfortunately the festival occurs about a week after we leave Morocco, though that might be a good thing as we might not have found a place to stay. The place hums to that beat all the time, plus the odd Pink Floyd and Bob Marley album in keeping with the cool jive theme to this town.

Other notable historic references to Essouira in include the fact that the rocks around here have provided the shell fish that yielded the purple dye used by Imperial Rome. The town was also the principal port of Morocco for some time as it was the closest sheltered harbour from which to transport goods brought over land from Timbuktu though the High Atlas and Marrakesh.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Marrakesh Markets

The medina in Marrakesh is one big market. I am sure many people live here too but it is definitely devoted to commerce. There are specific areas devoted to different styles or types of handiwork or items for sale but it is also all jumbled together.

In one area you will find that most vendors work in wood, other spots metal or fabrics or leather. Spices elsewhere, meats somewhere else, a group of recycled tire craft people in another area  and so on. There is never a firm rule to who sells what where, so you will find it gets all jumbled up too. Sometimes the best sale prices might come from the lonely fish out of water vendor of a specific product in a sea of other goods. Other times the competition heats up among sellers of similar goods. They also seem to share goods, in that if you request a specific size that they don't have they sometimes ask you to wait and they will run off somewhere to get it from another stall. With Linda wearing one end of the size range in sandals and  me the other we saw this more than once.

Sometimes there are more specific souks. The term souk (or souq) means market place, and is usually open air. It might refer to the entire market, but also be a set of stalls all selling the same stuff within a larger market, for example the fish souk or the leather souk where they not only work the leather they sell it too. Once you get into one of those you might find that you get free demos on how they do the work (weaving for example), but they certainly hope that you will buy once they have you in their clutches. The worst thing of course is to ask "how much?", especially if you are not really interested, because then the games begin.

The bargaining I usually leave to Linda, but she is hard-ass. The usual method is to ask a price, and you are given one to which you respond with a price much less, like half or less, maybe a third. He scoffs and come down a fraction, and you come up a bit. It goes on like that and you eventually agree on something in the neighbourhood of half or a bit more of the original price, maybe less than that if lucky or he realizes you are not so new at this and his price at the beginning was deliberately high. You may also decide to close the deal early because he is a bit desperate and you have already found the "real price" elsewhere and can convince him of that. It might also take walking away to get the deal you want. If he follows you, you know you've got him. First sale of the day is also good as closing that sale may mean good luck to the seller for the rest of the day. Last sale might also be good value.

Linda's style however, is to offer her low ball price and stick to it. She usually gets it too, making the sellers cry to boot. They often call her Fatima, or "you a Berber woman!" which is begrudgingly a compliment, but is also describing her as cheap! However once you have closed the sale with handshakes all around, you are now their friend and you might get invited for tea. Of course if you buy more than one item the bargaining power is better, or if you come back later to buy from the same person again you are way ahead of the game.



Friday, June 11, 2010

مراكش إكسبرس = Marrakesh Express

watch for edits to this and some other earlier posts in a few days. I'll be adding more pictures and getting up to date soon when I get more consistent internet connections...and now back to our regularly scheduled program...

مراكش إكسبرس
= Marrakesh Express

Leaving Azilal we headed east and north for a bit climbing somewhat eerily into the clouds before descending toward a lake in the Western High Atlas region. We soon crossed a dam (the lake behind it) and followed the comparatively lush river valley down until we eventually reached an expansive level plain covered in crops. We soon were on the N8 highway and turned to the west and Marrakesh.

Once on the Marrakesh Expressway (can't resist calling it that), we made pretty good time into the city closely following a double decker sheep truck much of the way and after some minor misdirection headed for the airport to return our rental car one day early. We did not get any rebate on the price, but after entering Marrakesh I was convinced that I did not want to drive there any more than necessary. It was not out of control but I did not need the extra agro of figuring out a big busy city. We had to fight a bit on the price for the taxi back to the medina where we were staying, “but there's a system” protested the guy at the stand when we refused to pay the set fair, so we said “but there's a bus”, and it was pulling in, so we got close to our price which was half the rate they asked for. Once again meters are non functional near airports.

The hotel we took this time was also called Gallia like the one in Casa, and had been suggested by some Americans we met in Dumnut. It was quite nice and again Riad style with reasonably well functioning air conditioning, both natural and of the electric kind. It was also very conveniently located at the edge of the medina and just 5 minutes walk from the huge square Djemaa el Fna which forms the vibrant cultural heart of Marrakesh. And what a heart it is...

A lot has been written of this square, by better writers than me, and I really can't describe it adequately. Imagine a carnival, a music fair a la Woodstock (but smaller), and a cooking showdown, then throw in some magic potions, and a bit of time machine, stir well, pump up the volume...and you come close. 

If you wish to have your fortune read, or have your hand henna'd, get your picture taken with a cobra, or with a Barbary ape on your shoulders, buy water from someone with a funny hat and brass things hanging all over him, or the best fresh squeezed orange juice you have ever had for only 40 cents, get yourself smoked while eating some of the best grilled meat ever, or even get something to smoke of your own, have yourself cured by something distilled from ostrich leg, or eat goat's head soup...all of it to the tune of numerous Gnaoua drummers and cymbals and enticements to buy this and eat that... you come here. 

The square is alive almost 24 hours a day. The 60 temporary food stalls set up every evening at 6 pm and go until 1 am, but from then until sun up is the only quiet time. The multi acre square is also surrounded by restaurants and hotels and market stalls, and everyone vies for your business, and sometimes quite aggressively. You had also better not be seen taking a photo of anyone trying to sell or perform here, without being prepared to have some baksheesh change hands.  

Fortunately we were far enough away and facing a quiet courtyard that it was very quiet at our room. I don't think we could even hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer which was almost everywhere else we have been. Maybe there were fewer practicing Muslims in Marrakesh, or less frequent mosques, but we still did see overflowing crowds at the mosques. 

Anyway people practice everything here, and sell everything else. The selling was the pushiest we have seen, including literally being pushed by a guy in the market trying to get me to eat at his stall. When there are a hundred other places to get the same stuff within a few minutes walk, that ain't the way to get my business bro, and I told him so. These guys got our money instead:

Marrakesh has a larger market than that of Fes, and with wider streets. I hesitated to call them streets in Fes as they were so narrow, but in Marrakesh there are scooters and 2 wheeled trucks and the odd car even going through a lot of them, in addition to the hand carts and, donkeys and occasional horse drawn wagon, so you have to watch your back. As far as watching your back in other ways, it was probably possible to get mugged here, or have your pocket picked but I don't think likely.

Amid the runaway capitalism, or it it just scraping to get by, there are also beggars galore. We have handed change to quite a few, usually the less pushy ones like a blind old man in an alley, and gave left over food to some others, and bought soup for one fellow hanging around outside a stall where we had just had a meal. Gratitude we got in return, but with our own relative wealth it was still really doing almost nothing. Just getting here cost more than most of this people could ever imagine spending, and for a vacation...what's one of those? 


more on Marrakesh soon, markets and museums.