Sunday, May 30, 2010

Moulay Idriss and Volubulis

Moulay Idriss 34°315N 5°3138W

Moulay Idriss is sometimes called the holiest town in Morocco. The mosque and mausoleum of Moulay (loosely translated as Saint) Idriss I, a great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is here and though off limits to non musselman types like us provides a reference point in the town for us. Turn right at the mausoleum gate from the main square and up through the narrow cobbled passageway, tight at the first corner, left at the fountain, curve around and up the hill, until we find … oh look, a sign! The sign directs us down a narrower winding set of uneven stairs to Dar Zerhoune. 

An extensively repaired and restored 400 year old home on at least 4 levels, this place is beautiful. The lowest levels only get natural light through the central courtyard, open to the sky above, one window over the front where I sit now in the living room on the second floor and a couple of small peepholes in the 2 bedrooms on this floor.

Higher up is the kitchen and dining area with large widows and balcony facing the sunsets in the west and above that the entire top of the house is a terrace where we can sit when it is not too hot. When it is sunny you could fry eggs on the tiled floor.

The donkeys outside are braying to wake people up for breakfast, as the roosters have not had much luck. Other than that there is very little sound that penetrates to our room. In fact after 10 or 11 the first night I could hear NOTHING. This was helped by the fact that we were the only guests that night. Last night with two Aussies in the next room it was very nearly as quiet as after being in Fes for a few days I think they really needed the rest themselves.

Situated in the hills about 450 meters up more or less, this place may get very hot in the coming months, but for now is quite pleasant. Hot by day, at maybe 30 c or so, it is very comfortably cool at night. The design of the houses helps a lot in that regard too. The houses perch, wrap around, and morph themselves into each other and embrace the hills shape in their practically organic designs. Whitewashed, with splashes of colour here and there especially on the twisting streets where the entrances lie, I am sure there are no 2 alike in the entire town.
The town is on 2 hills and from certain angles has the overall shape somewhat reminiscent of the head and hump of a camel. Of course I had to be told that but saw the resemblance once it was pointed out.

The road from Meknes took us through rolling hills covered in wheat, olive groves and other crops. The town is on the edge of more rugged almost mountainous terrain and in fact there has been volcanic activity not far from here though not recently. The town was first built around the year 780 and does still continue to grow, and in remarkably similar style.

It’s a pretty quiet place overall of just a few thousand people, though has a bustling market day on Saturday which happened to be our second day here and the population obviously swells as buyers and sellers come in from the outlying villages and all the streets become lined with their wares. Next to someone selling dates is a blanket covered in remote controls, near a carpet salesman are tables with spices and beside the strawberries are leather sandals.

People streamed into town like sheep (we saw about 20 sheep get out of one van, and about 20 people get out of the next) as we walked out of town to take a hike to find an ancient Roman hammam or bath in the hills to the East. It took a while to find it though we did come across other ruins, some sort of bridge or perhaps aqueduct, and when we did eventually get to the site we found an older man taking his sweet time of bathing in the warm, slightly suphury smelling water. Not to scare him with my white skin or embarrass him potentially by Linda’s presence in the water (we had swim suit like things ready for a dip), we just dabbled our feet for a bit and headed back to town.

We did no shopping other than for our meals, most eaten in one of the semi permanent stalls near the main square. That is aside from our breakfasts at Dar Zerhoune and the supper that was prepared for us there. The guesthouse is managed competently by Fayssal, with help from his younger brother Eunice, and greatly by his mother. She prepared a 4 course Moroccan meal including a chicken tajine, a salad, and an delicious eggplant dish with bread and fruit for dessert, followed of course by Moroccan whiskey. It is not really whiskey of course, its mint tea, but we have hear it called that a couple of times already. It's made with green tea, fresh mint leaves, boiling water, and is usually sweetened with sugar.

We have found that the main draw for most people to this town though is the nearby ancient Roman city of Volubulis. Many people zip out on day tours from Meknes or even Fes to see the ruins and rush back. Good for us and too bad for them, as the town is a little gem. Our companions from Canada in the Grand Taxi did just that, but at least they walked to the ruins rather than taxi over, but we don't know what they did later.

We also walked to Volubulis which is about 4.5km away on the most direct route, but we did the much longer older road that wrapped around the hill that overlooks Moulay Idriss, which provided great views and was overall more pleasant. In fact we did not even set out on the initial climb up to the old road until almost 7pm, our intent being to be at the old city as the sun set.

As in the town, along the way we were waved at or greeted with Bonjour, ca va?, and quite frequently. In fact at one point after we had been gazing up the slope at a flock of sheep moving along though the scrub trees and grass, a voice came from on high, Bonjour Monsieur, bonne vacances! It was the shepherd, at least a 100 feet up the hill from us. He then willingly posed for a photo.

Not long after this encounter we met a friend of Jesus. No it was not a Jehovah's Witness, though I suppose he might have been, but he did not have an edition of Watchtower in his hand. Instead he had some stiff weeds he planned to make into a broom.

The Jesus part was actually in reference to the part he played in The Last Temptation of Christ, as an extra, a friend of Jesus. You may recall I mentioned that a lot of western films having been made in Morocco, and this was one of them, largely shot at Volubulis and the vicinity, and his village was one of them. He was a pleasant and dapper 70ish year old man who upped the cadence of his stroll while we slowed ours for a time so we could chat. Eventually however we had to bid him adieu and put it in gear again, as the sun was getting low.

Once at the Roman city we paid a 10 dirham entry fee each, and proceeded to wander about some of the huge expanse of columns and plinths and half walls and soon reached some of the more impressive sections of arches and the Basilica and then started to find the many mosaics. At first our only companions on the entire site were some nesting cranes, prominently located at the top of one of the columns. This changed a few minutes before the sun set around 8:30 as a local man approached us and identified himself as a night watchman on the site. He took a picture or 2 of us and proceeded to give us a private tour.

As the light was going fast, we essentially scampered over the multi acre city, mosaics to baths, wine cellars to vomitoriums, aqueducts to sewers, olive presses to granaries, stone sundials to stone penises.

There was really only one stone penis actually, about a foot and a half long relief sculpted in 3 dimensional glory on the surface of a low bench. He took great pleasure in showing us this by making sure he reached it first so he could sit on it to hide it, and then making us sit on either end of the bench facing each other, at which point he jumped off, exposing the…umm…solid, I mean rock hard…well, er…stone?...member between us.

It was soon too dark to see much more so we voluntarily gave him a good fee of 50 dirham, and he gave us a little camel he had woven from a few pieces of straw as we wandered the site. We thanked him for his excellent tour, and managed to get back to town quickly in the lone Grand Taxi sitting at the gate, the driver sitting there chatting with the other night custodian.      

 ...a bit more on this page soon, and after that Fes  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Taxis to Meknes and beyond

After taking the abbreviated tour of the Hassan II Mosque, we arranged with a Petit Taxi driver to take us back to the Hotel Galia, wait for a bit while we grabbed our bags, and then take us to the Casa Voyageurs train station to get going to Meknes. We joked a bit with him about the fare, as he thought that I thought the price agreed on was in Euros, not Dirham. I said, no I knew 70 Dirham was the price, and that 70 Euros should get us to Marrakesh about 300 km away. Somewhat prescient as it turned out.

Petit Taxis and Grand Taxis make up an important part of the transportation options here. A Petit Taxi is a subcompact car which operates, more or less, like the classic North American variety. They have meters, though the fare might be a set price agreed upon at the beginning of the trip. If the meter does not get turned on, and you don't know how to negotiate, be prepared to get fleeced. There seem to be a lot of meters qui ne marche pas. 

Grand Taxis are usually shared taxis, in older largish Mercedes 2200's, 240D, or similar models, with mileage that is in hundreds of thousands . They don't wander around looking for fares but wait at designated sites in the cities or towns, the number of sites determined by city size, but never are there more than a few stands. They have preset prices per seat, to the fixed locations in the near towns, but typically will wait until all 6 seats are full before departing. That's right, 6, which means driver plus 2 in front, and 4 in the back.

You can pay for empty seats if you don't want to wait the minutes or hours it might take to fill the car, no discount, just 6 times the rate for 1. If you can share with a few friends, it's a good way to go. Better 3 or 4 sweaty people you know than 6 sweaty people you don't know.

At the train station we bought our tickets at 90 MAD each (about $11), for the 4 hour trip to Meknes via Rabat and a whole bunch of other stops.

Oh right, about that Euro fare I mentioned. We had agreed to 70 Dirham, about $9, and when we got close to the station Linda asked me if I had change as she just had a 100 Dirham note in her pocket. I thought I did but she did not hear me say so, so handed him the 100 and he thanked her and took off. I would have waited for him to change it or would have dug around for the exact price but no biggie...

We had to wait at the station almost an hour before the next train and while hanging around for 15 minutes or so, we suddenly saw our taxi driver show up. He had the 100 note in his hand, and at first I did not understand, after all a 30 Dirham tip was just over three dollars for us. Than we realized he was holding, and handing back to us, a 100 EURO BANKNOTE! He had not noticed at first either, but was several minutes away when he saw Linda's error, and he came to give us back the more than hundred dollar "tip" we had accidentally given him! It was not like he could not have exchanged the large amount of cash, as Euros are used very commonly there, and he probably could have used it too. I called him an honest man and thanked him profusely. Linda and I promised ourselves to look more closely at our bills from now on.

After on the train for an hour or more, I tried to explain in French the expression "milk run" to one of our compartment companions, but I was on shaky ground when trying to get across the concept of door to door delivery of milk, something that I have not seen myself since I was a very young kid. The light bulb went on when I used the analogy comme le facteur (like the mailman). I guess they don't use Super Boxes here either.

There are 2 classes on the trains, and most travel 2nd class. The only difference is that the compartments have capacity for 6 in 1st or 8 in 2nd. That's the theory. In practice 2nd class might have 10 or more jammed in. We saw that in action as I opened a compartment door and asked if there was room for 2 more, and as the 4 occupants adjusted there stuff to make room for us, 6 or 7 traditionally dressed old men and ladies squeezed past me into the booth.

We eventually found space and never had more than 3 to 5 companions for the trip, some of whom were quite friendly (esp the milk run guy, some sort of business man going from El Jadida to Tangiers). There was also a father & daughter from the very southwestern most corner of Morocco, an area in the region of the Western Sahara that is disputed over by Morocco and Mauritania. They don't go to war over it but at least in words they do. This pair think of themselves as Moroccan certainly.

Eventually we arrived at the first train station of two in Meknes, and took the first hotel we found and probably the first hotel we could have found as it was about 1 & 1/2 blocks from the station. It was a very nice place, lovely art deco mostly with some M C Escher tiles thrown in and lots of local touches but we could have made a better choice. No problem with the room or staff at all, and the price was more than we would have liked but still ok at 342 MAD including breakfast, but no sleep was to be had for me again.

It was hard to blame it on jetlag now, but the noisy bar below our window I could single out as a likely suspect. That plus the fight that broke out, which was I think just a word battle, and the howling cat, and the street being swept, and the out of tune motorcycles, and the trains. Remember I said the location was convenient?

Oh yeah and the call to prayer that began at 4:30 AM. But it was mostly the coffee shop or bar below us...

So about those taxi fares again. Overhearing a couple of Canadians (how can you tell Canadians at a distance? MEC gear of course) at a nearby table at breakfast in the Hotel Majestic talking about Volubulis, near where we were going, I suggested we share a Grand Taxi 4 ways. The hotel guy had tried to book a taxi for us and make us pay 120 Dirham for the ride, but we knew the actual rate was 60 for the entire car or 10 per person. Sharing it with the bother/sister act from Vancouver/Toronto cost us 15 each, and got us there on our own schedule.

Actually though I should reel back to the night before when we strolled around the old medina and the souq (market) of Meknes at least for a few pics.

In the Souq you can buy just about anything, from garlic

to Tajines and other pottery

to any colour you want in olives (the yellow ones with bitter lemon are amazing)

 to hotdogs

or maybe some pretty scary beasties

and even the Slap Chop guy had to start somewhere

You can meet lovely ladies from Rabat (with no husband!)

or you can just hang around

and if none of that suits your fancy, there is always Door Number 5.

Actually I love the doors. You will see more of them.

Coming up soon, two quiet but expensive days in Moulay Idriss, and walking to Volubulis. 

The First Real Post From Morocco

 7am, wide awake in Casablanca

Well, perhaps not wide awake, but  I cannot sleep and am not going to try any more while Linda still catches a few ZZ’s. She says she can't sleep a lot of the time but it ain't so.  2 “days” out of Vancouver, but really only a long day yesterday with about 14 hours of air travel from Vancouver through Seattle, then Amsterdam and from there to Casablanca. Add stopovers of 1.5 hours at SeaTac, and 7 at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, plus the getting through customs, train & taxi from the airport here; it starts to add up.

I don't sleep well in planes trains or automobiles and am a light sleeper at the best of times. So today will be spent  after 2 hours snoozing since home, or rather I will be spent. So it goes.

The flights from YVR to Amsterdam were smooth and on time. With the long stop in Amsterdam, and the quality of the transit system, we knew a quick trip into the city would be not a problem. The trains stop right under the airport and 15 Euros bought us both round trip tickets on the 30 minute train, actually 35 in and 25 out as the intercity one we took out made fewer stops. 

The first sight that greeted us outside was an amazing array of bike parking in the vicinity of the train station. Obviously the concept of Park & Ride here takes on a 2 wheeled connotation. There are ranks of bikes on the waterfront, on the sidewalks, on barges, ramps and balconies. Impossible to say how many there were, but thousands easily.

Of course I knew that part of the culture being so normal here, that bikes are used by everyone to go everywhere practically.  It was just pretty impressive to see so many.

You do not just see them parked though as they are moving everywhere around you, so you have to watch your elbows and your path too. The cyclists do obey the rules of the road though, so at least are predictable. The bike lanes are of course everywhere too.  I was a bit surprised to see that motorized scooters are allowed to share the bike lanes. Probably only the smaller than 50cc ones I expect, but to me (owning a Vespa myself) it appears unfair to the pedal bikes to have the gas powered things with them. Not so much for the fumes or anything, but just that scooters can travel faster and perhaps even more importantly, accelerate faster, than single speed Dutch bikes which represent the majority of the bikes I see on the paths.

We walked around the city for a while, stopped into a bike shop where I dropped a copy of Vancouver’s bike culture magazine Momentum on a table, having read it on the plane. They will probably laugh at our feeble attempts to catch up with them, and at our fixation with fabulously expensive fixies. Practically everything here is single speed and utilitarian.

Another aspect of the Netherlands we had to soak up was some food! And where better to start than with pancakes! I had a delicious bacon and apple variety while Linda enjoyed here waffles, washed down with coffee from the espresso machine of course.

While wandering around we saw several of the cities “other” type of coffee shop, but those will have to wait until we get back here at the end of June. We did not want to get so relaxed we would miss our next flight.

The Royal Air Maroc flight we took next was a moderate distance 3.5 hour hop across Europe plus a corner of the Mediterranean and the northern part of Morocco. We could see Spain below us example, and the hills of the northwest corner of Africa.   Again a smooth flight with a lot more leg room on a half empty 200 seat 737. The biggest headache here was the loud obnoxious Dutch guy who was ahead of us at check-in and beside us on the flight. Hopefully we won’t see him again as he spends his month in Morocco. It started off with him trying to check in a bike that would have cost him $150 Euros to travel with, which turned out to be too much for him, so he gave the bike away. Then when he discovered we were Canadian, he thanked us for liberating his country, and then proceeded to loudly curse the Germans and not just the WWII Germans, but the modern day ones too. 

As the city comes to life outside I suppose I should turn to current circumstances. We are at the Hotel Galia, in the center of Casa. This place we took a chance on based on them being favourably reported on in the Lonely Planet guide. It's very clean, basic, friendly and cheap. As we got here kind of late, about 8pm, they had no rooms with bathroom, but there is a shared one down the hall. It's typically funky in a way we are used to in our Asian travels. Uneven stairs, questionable decor, strange bathroom layout (you can't get in the shower without serious contortions as the doors to the stalls open inward and are as wide as the stall so you there is no way to get  behind the door to close it….stuff like that).

 Not our hotel, but not far

It is also on a street that bears some resemblance to a scene from a movie about trouble in the Middle East, where at least 2 large buildings are just shells that look like they have been bombed out. I know they have not been bombed … I think. Actually there are a lot of older colonial buildings in need of serious repair and they would probably be beautiful if done right.

The location is right in the old city centre and a block from the central market. Rate of 220 Dirham (MAD) and a great breakfast for an extra 25 each, so about $30 spent here by us. Well worth it, I would say.

Next morning we planned to do at least one touristy thing and then get out of town so did not stay up or out late. In fact I don't know that it felt all that comfortable out at night anyway as the district is a bit sketchy though not downright menacing. The cities here do bring out a different breed at night and in general it might be best laying low in a lot of neighbourhoods, though of course not everywhere.

We did need food though so went out for a fish dish a couple of blocks away. It was a plate stacked with several lightly battered whole fish about 8” long, squid rings and prawns. Served with large bread rolls and tomato and chili sauces, it was simple and quite good. The biggest problem here was the aggressively scavenging cats but the street urchin types stayed away probably fearing the wraith of the restaurant employees.

The one touristy thing was more than one in fact. We walked from the hotel though the city, eventually reaching the old medina of narrow lanes and stalls of food sellers interspersed with everything-else-sellers. Turning down offers of guides was made a lot easier after we caught sight of the 200 plus meter high mosque, the main attraction on the water front in Casa. The Hassam II mosque is a monster mosque.  

We latched onto the tail end of an English speaking tour that had already been inside the mosque (you see one mosque, you've seem 'em all said Linda), so only caught a bit of it, specifically the hamman or baths downstairs . We avoided paying for the tour that way, but also wanted to get out of Casa soon so took a taxi back to the the hotel and from there to the trains as we di not want to be too late in Meknes, our next destination, partly because we had nothing booked ahead.  


Anyway this huge place, the third largest mosque in the world, was a recent construction over 8 (or was it 12?) years at a cost of a cool half billion. Not Dirham, Dollars! The King obviously wanted to impress, of course not without detractors who would have preferred more money on social programs and useful infrastructure for this developing but still poor country. Apparently the unemployment rate is something like 40%. At some point it might be better to talk about the employment rate. 

 Here's another shot to illustrate a bit of scale, and another to give some sense of the colour and detail.

Coming soon: expensive Petit Taxi in Casablanca and cheap Grand Taxi in Meknes, plus The View From Moulay Idriss.    

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A quick one from Casa

for now, just saying hello from Casablanca, more later. So far so good

Sunday, May 23, 2010

1.5 days to go & I've really got the itch now...Hey what's that on my hand?!

Our trip is getting very close now. 2 more sleeps or 1.5 days almost to the minute before we take off.

Coincidentally I also just finished an unusual and intriquing book about a trip to Morocco, and I'm starting to notice my hand is getting itchy.

I found the book in the laundry room of my building, where I happen to get lots of my reading material. It's actually been great for that as I have found such gems as The Kite Runner, Gods Behaving Badly,  A Stranger In Tibet, and very modern and topical novels like Water, Inc. Not to mention some real throwaway stuff, books you were glad you didn't have to pay for. 

Anyway, this month's find was The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson. The style of the short but beautifully illustrated hardcover is that of a travel journal, the first half written by Lydia though after she mysteriously disappears her traveling companion (once lover) Chris takes up the narrative. 

After some time in Morocco she develops an irritation on the skin of her left hand, which she at first attributes to flea bites. As the marks on her skin grow it eventually develops into a map made of lines and symbols, and eventually covers her entire arm. She keeps it from Chris and becomes more distant from him in both space and time, and eventually disappears altogether after meeting an enigmatic restaurant owner. Chris takes over writing the journal but eventually returns to Canada after searching for Lydia becomes futile...

Unhappy with this outcome, he soon starts hanging out in dusty libraries reading all the history he can find of the North African country...and soon finds himself back in Morocco.

The part travelogue, part mystery is just a bit spooky and so was the timing of it showing up when it did. 

Anyway, I don't expect our trip will take as mysterious a turn, but I suppose you never know. Maybe you will notice  a few weeks from now that Linda has started to write this blog. If so, don't worry, I'll be ok...wherever or whenever I happen to be! 


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still More Gadgetry, and some Fluid issues

I love maps, and hate getting lost. I don`t like asking for directions, and Linda sucks at reading maps, even when she has them right side up.

I own at least 3 atlases, mapping software, use Google Earth and have at least 2 GPS units.  I`ll probably reduce that to one, but maybe not. The jury is still deliberating on that one.

Atlases, software and Google Earth are not very portable. iPhone and Smart Phone users may disagree, but at least they don`t lend themselves to walking around with in hand. Real mapping GPS units can be pretty easy to carry around nowadays though.

Newer models like the Garmin Colorado 300 are very quick and accurate, have a lot of memory and do a lot of stuff. This particular model is not perfect with some issues like so-so battery life and not the greatest visibility in some lighting conditions plus some esoteric shortcomings the Geo-caching nerds will miss, but it is a big step up from the earlier generation models I have used previously.  Acquiring quickly and holding onto Satellite signals in less than ideal conditions is nice to have at your disposal.

Having a SD memory card slot with 4 gigs in it is also handy. Not that I will need it all, but the huge memory capacity allows me to have the base map the unit came with, plus a full set of Topo maps for Canada that I already had, plus a Morocco Topo map, and City maps for Europe for later in our trip.

The Morocco map I got here:

The fellow responsible for creating and hosting it I came across on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum site. He has been quite helpful there and even had a great link to a list of hotels, with GPS coordinates of course! 

I have not asked him for permission to link to his image and map page, so I guess I should head on over to Thorntree and let him know.

That is not it for gadgets. Related to maps and knowing where you are is helped with a decent pair of binoculars of course.

Binoculars are one of those things where bigger (or more powerful) is often not better. Too big, bulky, heavy...whatever.. and you won`t want to carry it. Too powerful and they can become very awkward to use.

Don`t get me wrong; high magnification can be very useful if things are very far away. Mountains in the distance, ships on the horizon, or astronomical viewing of things potentially light years away is best with high power, such as 10, 15 power or more.

Things at nearer or intermediate distances are best viewed with lower magnification power such as 8x or less.  At high power it is very hard to hold the glasses (or telescope) steady enough to keep something clearly in sight, plus the field of view usually becomes too narrow and closely defined. If you lose sight of your intended visual target it becomes very hard to find it again with a narrow field of view. With a bit lower power you will still get a much closer view of the distant objects, and while maybe not quite as close, you have the advantage it being much easier to find and hold the subject in your field of view.

With that in mind my travel binos will be the Pentax Papilio 6.5 x 21 as shown below. Of course 6.5 refers to the magnification power and (I won`t get into the technical side too much) the 21 is related to the light gathering ability, or how bright they are in simple terms. In this case the larger the second number the better; so 21mm is not big. The problem being with larger objective lens diameter (21 vs 32 vs 40 vs 50 for example) the weight and bulk of the binos is going to go up considerably mostly because larger lenses are required. Brighter is certainly better in low light conditions, but comes at a cost in size and weight. I have higher power and brighter binos, but at maybe twice or more the weight and volume, I'll usually leave them closer to home.

Another really neat feature of the Paprilio models from Pentax is the close focusing they can achieve. You can see clearly at as close to about 18" or 1/2 meter. This is a lot closer than most binoculars and it seems a bit of an odd specification to be pleased with for something usually used to see things far away, but it seems so far to be quite handy. It is almost like a handheld microscope in use as it allows you to zoom in on closeup flowers, insects, or even architectural details. I like it and combined with the image quality, relatively light weight & compact size of this model I think it might easily become my favourite pair of the 3 or 4 sets of binoculars I have.

Yeah I know, too many gadgets!  

Another technical gadget we are taking is a Steripen. I hate buying bottled water for a host of reasons.

Here are just a few:

Bottled Water's environmental impact:
  • 60 Million plastic bottles a day are disposed of in America alone!
  • Massive amounts of greenhouse gases are produced from manufacturing the plastic bottles.
  • Millions of gallons of fuel are wasted daily transporting filtered tap water across America and around the world.
  • It requires 3 times as much water to make the bottle as it does to fill it... it is an exceptionally wasteful industry. 
Bottled water sucks. In addition to the reasons above, you really can`t trust the water that is in those plastic bottles or what happens to the bottle it is transported in after it is empty.

In the USA the EPA controls standards for tap water and holds it to a higher standard of purity than is required for bottled water sold on the open market. This might vary from place to place, but just because something is sold in a `sealed` bottle it does not guarantee it`s inherent purity.

We traveled in SE Asia a couple of years ago, and tried to avoid bottled water when there. No wonder when articles in Reuters say things like this:

as incomes have risen, more people have been buying bottled water. Twenty-litre jugs that sell for around 50 US cents are affordable for most Vietnamese. However, tests on hundreds of brands across the country reveal that bottled water cannot be trusted either. Dozens of samples failed safety standard tests in Ho Chi Minh City in March 2009. "We detected bacterium in our samples, mainly coliform and Pseudomonas aeruginosa," said Le Truong Giang, deputy director of the city's health department

In North America, Europe and other places in the developed world there may be very highly developed and widely utilized standards for plastic recycling for the empty bottles, but you can`t count on it elsewhere.

When I was in Guatemala a number of years ago we bought bottled water to avoid drinking the tap water which we felt we could not trust. It was practically impossible to buy anything that was not carbonated (acqua minerale), but it was also very hard to actually walk away from most small vendors with the bottle. In a well meaning effort to reduce the waste stream associated with empty plastic bottles the Guatemalan authorities had recently instituted a deposit system for the bottles.

However this backfired and most people in small shops would not collect a deposit, but would instead pour the contents of the bottle (water, Coke, Fanta , or whatever) into a small plastic bag (``boursa``) with a straw and hand that over the counter. Even if you offered to pay more for the bottle and not bring to back for the deposit they were reluctant to let it go. They would not have to worry about collecting and paying out the deposit this way. It also lead to plastic bags and straws being strewn everywhere, a really distressing form of garbage we saw all over the place in some villages.

As an aside, but still on topic, my partner Kathryn managed to contract Hepatitis on that trip and it was most likely from the water. I also picked up something in my gut that did not make me as sick as her but did affect my GI system for at least a year of 2 after that trip.

So I intend to take along a Steripen and use it to help insure that the tap water we drink is safe to do so. Using this and filling a 1 litre or so bottle we each carry should reduce our impact at least a little bit, while lessening our risk. I have not heard much to indicate that water quality in Morocco is suspect, but...

In a nutshell, the Steripen works by killing the nasties in your water by bombarding them with UV light. It is not a filter, so we will not be using it with water we take from scum covered stagnant ponds, but even water that comes out of a tap may also have invisibly small baddies in it that this might take care of. As we are not really going backcountry, we should be able to avoid the need for taking water from scum covered stagnant ponds, or at least I sure hope so.

Our Hep A shots are also up to date. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Essential Travel Gadgets, and some not.

You can't do much without a bevy of gadgets these days. I like gadgets, don't get me wrong. In fact if you know me well you would already know I love gadgets!

At home I am not tied to my mobile phone, in fact I often forget I have it, and the same goes for my MP3 player. But these days no well equipped traveler can go anywhere without at least a cell phone and digital camera. However even those things requires their own additional gadgets, like SIM cards, digital memory, chargers, headphones and so on. Here are a few of the things we are taking (for 2 of us)...

  • Phone (doubles as my MP3 player)
  • MP3 Player (Linda)
  • Camera 1 - Canon A540 (Linda)
  • Camera 2 - Nikon D40 with 2 lenses (me)
  • Netbook Computer (Linda's, but I will be using it to post to the blog)
  • GPS

The phone will need a charger, memory card and SIM card for each country I want to use it. Headphones as well. The MP3 will need charging capabilities, memory card and headphones. Camera 1, needs memory AA batteries and charger, and a case. Camera 2 needs memory cards, charger for proprietary battery, cases for camera and lens, spare filter or 2. The  Acer Aspire Netbook needs charger and case. The Garmin GPS needs AA batteries, & maybe a cable to connect to the computer.

Just carrying a phone is tricky. Most phones are "locked" to a specific carrier, such as my Samsung which is a Rogers phone. That's fine in Canada, and not too bad in the US (depending on the contract) but if I tried to use it overseas I would pay horrendous roaming and long distance fees. By getting the phone "unlocked" (about $25 +/-), I can buy a cheap SIM card in whatever country I land in and then pay local rates for calls. This might come in handy when I need to call ahead to a hotel, the rental car breaks down or I have to call an airline. I expect to get a SIM card in Morocco as we will be covering so much ground there and probably will for France as we are meeting people, but can probably skip the Netherlands unless there is such a thing as a Euro card that does both.

Of course this means I might get a new phone # every country I visit, but since I will mostly use it for outbound calls that is not so bad, plus I may get fewer meaningless calls from home, including the wrong numbers I sometimes get.

Another advantage of the modern phone is it is also a decent MP3 player, so scratch one gadget. The MP3 player is handy at the least when trying to drown out distractions or try to sleep in jet-lagged confusion, or in noisy hotels.

A saving grace of small modern gadgets is that almost universal, Universal thing known as USB  (Universal Serial Bus). Designed for computers to simplify their connectivity requirements, it is conveniently a way in which many small electronic devices can be charged. Here's another way to leave behind a gadget or too, specifically extra chargers. You will still need the cable that has the right connector for the phone/MP3/PDA/GPS but the thing that plugs in the wall can possibly be standardized. Ah, but that's another complication.

The wall plugs will need adapters to be used with North American standard devices. A huge benefit of most small electronics and their associated chargers is that while they output 5 volts or 6 or 7.5 or whatever, they can do it if the input voltage is 110 volts, 220, 230 and at 50 or 60 hertz (that's not the rental company). Here is where it is very important to read the fine print, on the charger that is. Failing to do so might result in something between not charging (if you are lucky), and burning down the Riad (if you are not so lucky).    

The power and adapters needed can be seen here.
You can see more Country specifics if you follow the links below:

Canada and the US are of course as below:
CanadaA, B120 V60 Hz

I managed to find the item to the right which will solve a number of gadget charging issues. I don't have and won't need the cable shown with but it has a USB output and has 3 types of interchangeable pins: type A, C and G (UK standard which we will leave at home). So I can plug this in and charge cell phone or MP3 directly with their USB cables. Bingo!

However I will still need at least one other type A to C adaptor for the Netbook charger and for the 2 camera battery chargers.
Oh well...

I've also decided that this kind of Energizer USB battery charger below I can do without.

Apparently according to CNET News there is software that loads with the device that includes a Trojan that will take over your computer and potentially steal your information. I knew the Energizer Bunny was evil, but now there's proof! A Trojan Bunny? 

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Pig Gets Busted!

I "used" a few of my co-worker friends the other day.

Under the guise of inviting them over to see the Canucks pulverize (not!) the Chicago Blackhawks in game 4 of the best of 7 series where Vancouver was already down 2 games to 1, I had them all act as accomplices in the demise of my latest vacation fund piggy bank. I had to get them all in the mood for a lynchin' by plying them with food and beer. This being, of course, all part of my master plan which was that many hands make short work of rolling lots of coins!

Above is the end result! After delivering a few blows with my trusty Estwing hammer on the backside of said ceramic porcine monetary receptacle, a huge pile of coins issued forth. 

It was not a bad haul for my 2 years-plus of coin saving, but I will have to keep my bookkeeper Mister Silversides away from the alcohol before he does the math next time. It actually added up to $2218.45,  $2000 of which I put in the bank to help finance the upcoming trip. With current strength of the Canuck Buck vs the Euro it should go a long way in our travels in Morocco and elsewhere. 

Note the coins on the eyes in respect of the dearly departed porker. He also broke so gracefully under my hammer his intact but contorted face might end up framed and hanging on a wall!