Monday, March 21, 2011

"You want a Moroccan has-been?"

After London, we headed straight to Africa! We'd researched and found that Casablanca and Rabat seem skippable, so we flew into Fez for its winding medina (old city). The first night, we settled into our beautiful riad and ventured out for our first tajine meal. The medina has prime people watching-- men in their pointy-hooded jalabas, and women in their multicolored hijabs-- donkeys strapped to unwieldy carts-- chickens being slaughtered by disinterested butchers, mid-conversation--

The next morning, we met Mustafa, our guide for the day. We liked him right away, for his charm, his Arabic lessons, and his 'we are the world' philosophy. He took us to a couple of obligatory sites and we soon realized this medina was one big family...everybody was helping everybody else make a little money off of the foreigners. After a lesson on Berber weaving, we found ourselves being pressured into buying a carpet (okay, we bought one, but not until we'd knocked the price down by 70%). We visited a beautiful riad that had been turned into an architecture school, surrounded by endless date palms and orange trees. Next, we were taken to Mustafa's aunt's house for lunch...a lamb tajine with almonds and prunes. By the time he brought us to the tannery, we'd learned how to avoid being pressured into buying: act disinterested. Simple as that. The techniques we saw for naturally dying fabrics were ancient. Like a lot of Morocco, it seemed stuck in time.

That evening, Mustafa propositioned us with an ingenious solution to the rest of our time in Morocco. He set us up with private transportation (taxi and 4x4) to the Sahara, including a camel ride where we camped in a Berber tent. Our driver, Mohammed, turned out to be a loony old man with a cheetah print clunker-- awesome. He communicated with us only in French, but his French was even worse than our French, so there was a lot of animated battle cries like, "A Rissani (the town he drove us to)!!" And "Madame! Monsieur! Manger? Cafe?"

We met some cool people in Merzouga (the Saharan town), but it didn't make our requisite drum circles any less awkward. Still, there's something eerily authentic about sitting in the sand around a fire with Berbers beating drums. As Alex said, "We are IN this culture right now". The Sahara was rad. We climbed dunes, scampered down dunes, and vowed never to ride a camel again (saddle sore for days after).

We worried the entire trip that Mustafa was gonna take our money and run, but lo and behold-- every step of the way, someone was waiting to take us to the next place. After Merzouga, we were delighted to find that we had a new driver, Hassani. And Hassani spoke English! Turns out, he was a Taekwando master and had visited Seoul...could even say the Korean numbers in a hilarious accent. Hassani had a much nicer taxi and actually stopped at various points for us to take pictures, including the most gorgeous landscape I've ever seen, coming down out of the High Atlas toward Marrakech. We got stuck in a blizzard while crossing the mountains--gridlock and very poorly insulated taxi-- for 2 hours. At that point, we decided we didn't come to Morocco for snow, so we said goodbye to Hassani and took a bus to Essaouira, on the coast.

The bus ride gave us a chance to meet Ingo, a middle-aged German with a dark sense of humor. We decided to stick together, and surprisingly, one of the little boys hired to take tourists to hotels from the bus station led us to a fantastic place...beautiful, good location, and really cheap (who needs Lonely Planet??). We noticed that, at least in Morocco, it really pays to have a little faith. Aside from carpet shops, don't expect that someone's trying to scam you. No one ever tried to take advantage of us or overcharge. No one was ever late to pick us up or forgot us. Maybe along the way our chauffeur would conveniently stop for tea at his uncle's tannery, but a simple, "We're too tired to shop," was enough to close the matter. We learned that responding to every offer with a polite "no, thank you" in Arabic (la shukran) often brought on a surprised giggle and we weren't pestered anymore.

Essaouira turned out to be our favorite place in Morocco. Its medina felt more modern and much less oppressive, despite being a tourist destination. The buildings are white with striking blue accents and there are plenty of hip or no-frills places to have a glass of wine (wine! our first sips since entering the country) and fresh seafood. Lots of lazy days and good chats with our German friend. We spent our last night in Marrakesh, but its snake charmers and midgets plucking violins pushing themselves into a photo op felt oppressive. The food market that Jamie Oliver raved about seemed hardly worth it...lots of shouting and repetitive stalls with nothing very interesting to offer. We were plenty ready to head out to our next destination...Spain!

Monday, March 14, 2011

London Bridge Arizona?

On February 28, Alex and I began a real adventure. We had vague ideas in mind of places that we wanted to visit, but the plan was to take a couple of months off and enjoy ourselves before figuring out the next career step. London seemed a logical first stop...something easy and where Alex has family. We could relax and organize a some of the food we've been missing during our time in Korea. Alex's cousins are restauranteurs and share our love of food , so right away we were whisked off to an unassuming pub with incredible local dishes. Our kindly host ordered plate after plate of unbelievable deliciousness...goat cheese only a day old on crusty bread, new potatoes with fresh herbs, fresh cockles, sea bass, churros with apple mash, Rhubarb Queen of Puddings, and a chocolate hazelnut pie. Can there be an equivalent to culture shock involving food? I think I died that night. Still a bit disoriented from our 12-hour plane ride, we were further overjoyed at how darn polite the English are. In Korea, I'm accustomed to being mowed down unapologetically, but here---here!-- "Excuse me!" for the slightest graze. We basked in our new/old life and exchanged several "this was a very good idea" looks.

In the days that followed, we ate more food that I've craved for a year and a half...and did some sight-seeing. We got a private tour of Parliament from an acquaintance of Alex's (who yelled across the room at a question posed for a Member of Parliament...needless to say, the MP was pretty pissed. Awk-ward.) She also took us to the Parliament Bar, which was filled with less than important people, I'm fairly sure. But hey-- I've now had a neat whiskey in Parliament. We visited the Tower, the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Portobello Road, had high tea at Kensington, and everything else you're supposed to do in's such a dense city and very walkable.

Our last night was spent with Alex's other cousin, the cousin's Swiss-German wife, and their two adorable kids. We had a really homey meal of fajitas and brownies and I sent the kids to bed with a rendition of a book about animals pooping on other animals' heads. Perfect.