Itinerary: Ten Days of Moroccan Sights and Tastes

Wednesday, December 31, 2008 | Morocco (map)

Group shot at Madrasa Bou 'Inania in Fes.
Jacqueline and I developed an ambitious plan for my mom and sister's ten-day Morocco visit. Such a packed itinerary was bound to hit some bumps in the road, as this one did. While we were lucky to enjoy unseasonably sunny weather in Fes, Maggie drank some bad orange juice in Marrakech that put her out of commission for several days.

All things told, the trip was a great success. Our itinerary—as it truly occurred—is posted below for the benefit of anyone else planning a trip to Morocco, or just curious to know where we visited, dined, and relaxed during this vacation.

Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes

Sunday, December 28, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

In Place Seffarine, in the center of Fes's old city, smiths sell items of copper and brass to tourists.
It's amazing and tragic just how much tourism can alter a place. Some recent incidents have highlighted for me the extent to which tourism has tainted parts of Fes's old city.

Tales of East Fes:

On Monday, Jacqueline and I led my mom and sister to Fes's less-than-glamorous eastern Andalus quarter to show them the Sahrij madrasa. Soon after we crossed the Oued Boukhareb River, which bisects the city, I began guessing at streets, trying to weave together a route from the unfamiliar paths. I paused to ask a shopkeeper the way toward the madrasa, and set off down the street he indicated.

After a few steps, a middle aged woman, who had apparently heard the conversation, turned to me and offered to lead us there, which she did within a minute. At the madrasa's door, I offered her a five dirham piece. She immediately thrust her hands up beside her head in genuine, unyielding

Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam? No, Thanks

Monday, December 22, 2008 | Casablanca, Morocco (map)

The Hassan II Mosque is Casablanca's only real destination of note.
Casablanca's airport is the city's biggest draw, without which it's hard to find a compelling reason to visit the rather dingy, sprawling port. Lacking the charm of other Moroccan seaside towns, Casa (as it is known locally) seems content to focus on its role as the country's primary industrial and business center.

Even classic movie buffs who visit the real Casablanca are likely to be disappointed. While grimy in its own right, Casa doesn't measure up to the charmingly raucous outlaw town of the famous film. (The model for that port was actually Tangier, located several hundred miles north along the Atlantic coast.) Finally, the movie was filmed entirely in Hollywood, not Morocco. Although today, the staff of Casablanca's several Rick's Cafés and Rex Cafés are happy to let visitors believe otherwise.

Packing Guidelines for Morocco in Winter

Saturday, December 20, 2008 | Morocco (map)

My own standard equipment fits in my light hiker's pack. Best advice I have for visitors to Morocco in winter: dress warmly.
In advance of my mom and sister's trip to Morocco this week, Jacqueline and I prepared a series of packing guidelines and suggestions to help them decide what to bring. Our recommendations were based on our prior travel experience, as well as our time living here in Morocco. I'm posting the guidelines in hopes that they may prove useful for other visitors who have never traveled to Morocco, and/or who think the whole place is nothing but dry, hot desert. (Not the case!) Below are our general recommendations and suggested packing list.

We want you to bring what you need to be dry, warm, and comfortable during your trip in Morocco. Having lived here for the past few months, we know a thing or two about how to do that. So we have developed a few guidelines that we thought would be useful for you as you decide what to pack. First and foremost, there are four basic rules that you should not ignore:

Celebrating the Sacrifice, and its Contradictions

Sunday, December 14, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Fatima and her two sons hold up the sheep's hindquarters as Abdelrahim makes the first incisions.
On Tuesday morning, Ryan, Jacqueline and I walked to the home of our former landlords, Abdelrahim and Fatima, who joined their neighbor Younes's family in sacrificing a sheep in honor of 'Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى). We arrived to see the two families circled together around the flailing sheep, its throat slit just seconds earlier.

The disassembly began as soon as the sheep ceased twitching. With a large knife and much tugging and grunting, Abdelrahim and Younes removed the sheep's head, then set to work on the body.

Using a kebab skewer, Abdelrahim poked a hole in the skin of a hind leg, put his lips to the hole, and began blowing into it, inflating the sheep's body to loosen the hide from the insides. Next, he and his sons Ahmed and Othman strung the body from an awning, and began slowly cutting away at the hide. After a half hour of careful slicing, they had worked nearly all the skin loose.

A Hike in Sheep Country, As 'Eid Nears

Monday, December 8, 2008 | Azrou, Morocco (map)

A shepherd leads his flock past a small cemetery outside of Azrou's town center.
Yesterday Jacqueline and I traveled south to the little Berber town of Azrou, our base for a day hike in the Middle Atlas Mountains.

A few inches of snow had fallen in the mountains just days earlier, making the picturesque drive through the Atlas that much more scenic. We reached Azrou around mid-day, and immediately set off for hills which hug the town's southern and western outskirts. Packed lunch in tow, we located a muddy track leading off into the scrubby forest, and started walking.

The trail followed (and sometimes overlapped with) the course of a small stream meandering down from the hills above town. Along our hike, we stepped aside several times to allow teams of woodcutters and donkeys laden with branches to pass.

More than anything, my goal on our hike was to escape Fes, where the constant noise, hassling, and

Quince: A Culinary Love Story

Sunday, December 7, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Quince is an uninviting fruit—fuzzy on the outside and woody on the inside—until you cook it.
In late October, my mother e-mailed me with a link to a Baltimore Sun article about quince, which included a recipe for a North African quince tajine. "Thought of you when I saw this," she wrote. "Do you see quince in the market? Loveya, Mom."

Of course my first thought was, What on earth is a quince?

Ever interested to expand my repertoire of Moroccan recipes, I looked up "quince" in my Arabic dictionary, poked around online a bit, and kept my eyes open. Within a few days, I noticed it—tucked between the tangerines and tomatoes at a nearby produce stand—a lumpy yellowish-green fruit covered in a distinctly unappetizing fuzz. "Waash haadu as-sfarjel?" I inquired.

"Ayyeh," the fruit seller confirmed. Love at first sight it was not, but I had found my first quince.

* * *

The quinces I took home that day matched the descriptions I had read—a little bigger than an apple,

Marjane and the Medina: Food Shopping à la Marocaine

Thursday, November 27, 2008 | Fes, Morocco (map)

Marjane's wide, glistening aisles contrast sharply with the medina shopping experience.
When I was preparing to leave for Morocco, without exception, everyone person back home who had ever visited or lived here agreed: "The food is amazing."

Here in Fes, I have stuffed myself at some of the city's finest restaurants, been force-fed by overzealous Moroccan housewives, and lunched at local bsarra soup stands beside paint-speckled laborers. I can confirm—it is all "amazing" as promised.

Buying food to cook at home, however, has revealed even more about Moroccan culture and the changes the country is undergoing. After two and a half months here in Fes, Jacqueline, our friends, and I are getting the hang of shopping à la marocaine, and have put our skills to use the last few days in preparation for a Moroccan-flavored Thanksgiving.

* * *

Fes offers a wide spectrum of food shopping options. At the simplest, most traditional extreme are

From Morocco to Melilla: A Reeducation in Normalcy

Monday, November 17, 2008 | Melilla, Spain (map)

Ryan and I did our part to combat Spain's financial crisis, by tossing back Cruzcampos in Melilla.
The Moroccan in me could tell right away that Melilla was not normal.

With the border just a few hundred feet behind us, Jacqueline and I boarded a local bus to take us into the center of town. Surprisingly, we were not shoved, we received a printed receipt for our bus ticket, and we actually found a seat. This being Europe, of sorts, I was not surprised to see Euros exchange hands or to hear Spanish, but the rest was highly unusual.

Melilla is itself an abnormality. One of Spain's two remaining colonial outposts on the Moroccan mainland, this diverse enclave is an anomaly in the human geography of North Africa. My two-day visit in the sleepy off-season was hardly enough to make sense of it.

* * *

Along with its fellow colony Ceuta (located further west along the Moroccan coast), Melilla is a prime

Barack Obama and the End of the American Disappointment

Wednesday, November 5, 2008 | Fes, Morocco (map)

"Moroccans vote for Obama", at least according to MarocHebdo, one of the major local weekly news magazines.
Back in the US, yesterday may have been my generation's greatest day, and I missed it. For nearly two years, I was completely immersed in the American presidential campaign while living in Washington, DC. Since moving to Morocco in September, however, I've had to settle for watching from a distance as this spectacular race finally drew to a close.

In Fes, as usual, misinformation was rampant in recent weeks, and what election-related "news" I received by word of mouth was uniformly absurd. Mostly, however, complete ignorance reigned. For instance, several weeks ago I asked a taxi driver—a self-described McCain supporter—what he thought of Sarah Palin, and received a blank stare in response. Never heard of her.

America's complex racial dynamics defied the usual Moroccan attempt to paint life in simplified, black-and-white terms. The few Moroccans who followed the campaign at all spoke in impossibly

A Walk in the Medina: Bab Fettouh to Bab Khokha

Thursday, October 30, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The inner courtyard of the Sahrij medersa glows with the green of its central pool.
The sudden, unpredictable showers that have been falling with increasing frequency in Fes let up yesterday afternoon for a few hours—enough for Ryan and I to put Fez from Bab to Bab to use, as I first did a few weeks ago with Jacqueline.

To begin our walk, we needed to reach the starting point at Bab Fettouh, the city's main eastern gateway. This proved to be a navigational challenge in its own right. We blundered through numerous wrong turns and blind dead ends, but picked our way across the old city by occasionally begging directions from helpful locals.

As we neared Bab Fettouh, we were surprised to emerge into a wide field, a sight very out of place within the old city's walls. The field doubled as a trash dump which, to our further surprise, overlapped considerably with a cemetery. At first, the apparent irreverence for the tombs (so at

Images of Bygone Days in Syria and the Arab World

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | Syria (map)

 
At left, merchants of Aleppo's rope souk, circa 1920. At right, the Souq Madhat Pasha along Damascus's famed Straight Street. (Photos and text from MidEastImage.com)
Doing some online research this evening here in Fes, I stumbled upon two series of early twentieth century photos from Syria and the Levant. Two hours later, I came up for air.

Though they predated me by decades, the photos instantly called to my mind familiar streets and landmarks—particularly in Damascus—from my own time in Syria.

In addition to stirring fond memories, the collections can also answer that burning question pondered by anyone who's ever visited an ancient Arab medina: "What did this place look like before they installed all the satellite dishes?"

Dar Bennani: The Almost Perfect Home

Saturday, October 25, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Dar Bennani: not a bad place to hang your hat, if I do say so myself.
Two weeks ago Jacqueline decided that she just couldn't take it any more, and informed me that we were moving out, toute de suite. In their ongoing war of attrition, the little apartment in Ziat had outlasted her.

As for me, while I agreed with Jacqueline that our apartment had its share of imperfections, I was learning to love it for what it was, and really settle into the rhythm of daily life there. Sure, the squat toilet wasn't pretty, the kids in the street were so loud they sounded like they were in the living room, and besides being lopsided our bed also smelled like moldy pine needles. But no home is perfect, right?

I was outvoted in a landslide, 1-1, and our housing search resumed.

Thankfully, it ended as quickly as it began, at the second house we visited. Jawwad, the young

The Moussem of Moulay Idriss

Friday, October 17, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Brotherhoods from Fes's various quarters processed one after another along the crowded parade route, drumming and singing.
Yesterday marked the annual moussem (festival) in honor of Moulay Idriss II, who's something like the local patron saint here in Fes. The son of the city's founder and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, Moulay Idriss was also the first ruler to unite the region now known as Morocco. He did so in the early ninth century, with Fes as his capital.

The moussem's main event is a raucous procession which begins outside Bab Boujloud and winds its way along the main route of Tala'a Saghira to the saint's mausoleum at the heart of the medina. It was an exuberant occasion.

All along the street, jubilant Fassis stood on stoops or sat overhead on the storefront roofs, cheering and clapping and singing to the drumbeats.

At the head of the parade, two men led a young bull, who would be the main sacrifice once the

Water, Water Everywhere, No Time to Stop and Think

Thursday, October 16, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The weekend's papers were filled with horror stories of the rains, and predictions of more flooding yet to come.
Saturday was the first day all week I didn't need to wear my rain jacket to walk out the door. It was also the day the whispers began all throughout the medina, and grew to a frenzy.

After almost a whole week of driving rains, culminating in an all-day deluge on Friday, a friend and I spent the morning exploring the Old City, and returned to the local salon de thé for lunch in the garden. I was up to my elbows in chicken tajine, baba ghanoush, and cinnamon-spiced potatoes when Denny showed up.

A middle-aged American photographer living in the Fes medina, Denny is a big talker—the kind of ultra-friendly guy who might finish his drink, say goodbye and then tell you three long, intricate stories before he actually leaves. Something about the quantity of Denny's stories has always made me suspect their quality, and the information he delivered on this afternoon only confirmed my

One More Seedy Port City, and the Road Home

Thursday, October 9, 2008 | Al Hoceima, Morocco (map)

Al Hoceima left something to be desired, but at least the earlier parts of our roadtrip were scenic.
After breaking camp on Saturday morning, Jacqueline and I drove to Al Hoceima (الحسيمة), the largest city along this stretch of the Moroccan coast. There we treated ourselves to a delicious breakfast of eggs, toast, and rich café au lait—all luxuries compared to our recent staples of stale bread and Vache Qui Rit—before exploring the beaches along the coast south of the city.

The guidebook again misled us with talk of "pristine, white sandy beaches" but the Cala Bonita beach just south of town was nice enough to warrant a visit. We lay on the beach, sunbathing and reading, while some local kids played in the waves. Several couples used the beach's seclusion as an opportunity to be more intimate than they could in town (i.e. by holding hands).

From another beach just down the coast, you can throw a stone onto one of several tiny islands still controlled by Spain. One of the islands, the Peñón de Alhucemas, is fortified, and serves as a

Following the Forgotten Coast: Al Jebha to Kala Iris

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | El Jebha, Morocco (map)

Al Jebha: not a happening place.
We continued the treacherous drive along the coast Friday morning, passing through neglected little seaside communities as we headed eastward. Large domed grain stores clung to the cliffs along our route. At one point, Jacqueline and I pulled over and gaped in amazement as a tour bus loaded to the brim with locals careened past. Many of the passengers must have had a deeply religious experience on that drive.

By mid-morning we reached the fishing village of Al Jebha, the last sizeable town along the coast before Al Hoceima, some 60km east. We bought a few provisions in the local general stores, and gassed up the Kia. All around, men loitered in cafés, worked the shops, and walked the streets, but the town's women were conspicuously absent from view.

From Al Jebha the road turned back inland, into the mountains. We soon came upon our first "road

Beautiful Views on "the Edge of Death"

Monday, October 6, 2008 | Oued Laou, Morocco (map)

After leaving Oued Laou, we headed east at dusk, hoping for better options further along the coast.
Returning from our hike in mid-afternoon on Thursday, Jacqueline and I quickly set off on the next stage of our trip—the drive to the coast.

From Chefchaouen, the road twisted downhill at absurdly tight angles. Mercedes taxis roared up around the curves, nearly tossing our flimsy Kia off the road several times. We cruised downward into a wide valley, where the road began to follow the Oued Laou (the Arabic word oued/واد means river, stream, creek, or creek bed) toward the coastal town of the same name, where we planned to spend the night.

Along its course to the sea, the river passes over several hydroelectric dams, and snakes its way along the floor of a red rock gorge.

In its brief description of Oued Laou, our Lonely Planet guidebook swoons about the town's

North to Chefchaouen, Diamond in the Rif

Sunday, October 5, 2008 | Chefchaouen, Morocco (map)

Chefchaouen's ghostly blue-and-white medina sits at the base of some of the Rif Mountains' highest peaks.
Before Jacqueline and I hit the road early Wednesday morning, I had hoped for an epic beginning—two travelers embarking on an unknown road, giddy with anticipation. But stalling the car at every traffic light on the way out of town hardly lends itself to such romantic visions.

Nonetheless, our pint-sized Kia, loaded with gear, chugged forth into the rolling brown hills northwest of Fes. The road was largely empty. Every few kilometers, an inter-city taxi might roar past, or I would push the little Kia around a lumbering farm truck.

In some villages we passed, the whole community was gathered in prayer outdoors. This being the Eid, attendance was likely high (like Christmas and Easter back home) and the crowd too large for the local mosque.

Mostly, we shared the first few hours with the spartan landscape. Only the striking blue expanse of

Sefrou's Second Generation

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | Sefrou, Morocco (map)

Sefrou's warm streets were largely deserted on this sleepy morning near the end of Ramadan.
On Sunday, Jacqueline and I joined Elena (another Fulbrighter) on a visit to the little village of Sefrou (صفرو), a 30-minute drive from Fes along a highway flanked by rows of olive trees. There is little to do in Sefrou, we found, particularly during Ramadan, when the town's cafes are closed during the day. We walked a mile or so up the road to a series of small waterfalls, then spent an hour or two exploring the small walled village.

About 8,000 members of Morocco's once sizable Jewish population built and inhabited the town, straddling a small river in the hills south of Fes. Today, however, there are no Jews in the village and the synagogue is shuttered and abandoned. Its small Hebrew plaque was the only indication I saw of the town's original heritage. Sometime in the second half of the last century, Jewish communities from Sefrou and elsewhere in Morocco emigrated en masse to Israel. Whether their

A Walk in the Medina: Bab Bou Jeloud to Bab Jdid

Sunday, September 28, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

An old man sells spices along Tala'a Kebira in the heart of Fes's old city.
Jacqueline and I recently bought Fez from Bab to Bab: Walks in the Medina, a renowned guidebook available for sale locally. The guide offers ten walking tours throughout Fes’ old city, one of which Jacqueline and I walked on Saturday, with some of our own modifications and on our own schedule. Our exploration began at Bab Bou Jeloud (باب بو جلود), among the most ornately decorated of the medina's dozen or so gates, which allow passage through the ancient city walls.

After walking a few hundred meters through a bustling market, we arrived at the Bou Inania madrasa, named for one of Fes's greatest sultans, Abou 'Inan, who led the Merenid dynasty during its glory days in the 14th century. The madrasa, elaborately decorated in fine zellij tiles and intricate cedar wood carvings, remains a sight to see, and a testament to the wealth and power centered in Fes in its greatest era.

Some Tough Love from Our "New" Home

Friday, September 26, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

Bab Bou Jeloud is a central entry point to the old medina of Fes and two of its principal market streets.
The ville nouvelle of Fes, constructed by the French in the early 1900s, was designed with typically French flair. A few blocks from ALIF, where Jacqueline and I are studying, wide, palm-lined boulevards intersect around fountains and flower beds. The French built their city beside the old medina, with a comfortable buffer separating the two starkly contrasting towns, not that they could ever be confused anyway.

Maps of the Fes medina give the impression that the street layout was carefully modeled after a plate of spaghetti. The circuitous zigzags and meandering dead-end lanes that once might have foiled foreign invaders are today equally effective in foiling my attempts to get to class, meet friends, or find groceries. As I continue to explore, I'm finding the look of the place quite different from Damascus in many ways. To me, it resembles the Kasbah of The Battle of Algiers more than it

Let Nothing Surprise You: First Impressions from Fes

Monday, September 22, 2008 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The old city of Fes (seen here from our rooftop) is situated in a bowl-like valley ringed with mountains.
I sat quietly in a second-class compartment on the train ride from the airport at Casablanca to Fes, our home for the next six months. As the train chugged from station to station, a constantly rotating array of Moroccans, mostly men reading local Arabic language newspapers, filled the seats around me. They talked among themselves sometimes, but I caught only a few familiar words in their rapid, guttural speech.

Leaving the flat coastal plain and entering the Middle Atlas mountains, we passed irrigated fields of vegetables, poppies, and row after row of orange trees, sagging with the weight of their fruit. The village mosques along the way carried distinctively boxy North African minarets.

* * *

Outside of class, Jacqueline and I spent much of our first few days in Fes searching for housing in

Thinking Globally, Adventuring Locally: Washington, DC

Sunday, September 7, 2008 | Washington, DC, USA (map)

Fly fishing at Burke Lake, Virginia, a 30-minute drive from Washington, DC. (Photo: J. Powers)
For all my stories on the far-flung destinations I've visited in recent years, I have yet to write about the city that has been my home all this time. But Washington DC bears recognition as a distinct and enjoyable place to live and—though few realize it—as one with great access to worthy adventures all around the city:
  • I just began to get into DC's outdoors scene at the end of my Georgetown days in 2006, when Jacqueline and I spent several weekend afternoons kayaking up the Potomac from Jack's Boathouse. Our favorite destination early on was a rope swing anchored high in a tree on the Virginia side of the river. The rush of that initial plummet, pendulum arc, and final leap into the river below were well worth the long paddle against the current.

Au Maroc!

Friday, September 5, 2008 | Washington, DC, USA (map)

"Don't be afraid to take that big step."
Jacqueline and I are moving to Morocco, the homeland of Ibn Battuta! It's been official for several months already, but is sinking in fast now that I'm back from Denver and have just a few more days to prepare to leave the country.

A few months ago, Jacqueline received a grant from the US Fulbright Commission to spend an academic year studying in Morocco. Her research proposal revolves around some major legal reforms undertaken several years ago in the country, and the impact those reforms have (or haven't) had on Moroccan women.

On top of that, Jacqueline received a Critical Language Enhancement Award to study Arabic for up to six months, prior to the main grant. Altogether, we expect to be in the country about 15 months.

For the first six months, our home will be the northern city of Fes (also known by the alternate

Democratic Convention in Denver

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | Denver, CO, USA (map)

Delegates and fans waved flags for an evening speaker in Denver's convention center.
Wow, what a week. The Democratic National Convention in Denver was a wild blur of famous people, parties, and events at all times and in all places throughout the city. (And what a city! I was very impressed with Denver—downtown is all murals, funky bars and restaurants, museums, and cultural sites.)

The excitement peaked each evening at the convention, which I was lucky to attend all four nights for work.

My organization's focus is exclusively international, with one exception. Every four years the group invites hundreds of distinguished political leaders from around the globe to the DNC to give them an opportunity to observe the American democratic process firsthand. Thanks to the remarkable worldwide interest in this year's US presidential campaign, turnout was high.

A Glimpse of Old San Juan

Thursday, January 17, 2008 | San Juan, Puerto Rico (map)

San Juan's historic district has plenty of picturesque streets to explore.
Before returning to Washington, Jacqueline, her sister Olivia, and I capped the idyllic trip in the islands with a layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we had just enough time to explore a bit of the old city.

A Week Well Spent on Bequia: St. Vincent & the Grenadines

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 | Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (map)

Sea turtles grazed on underwater grasses throughout the Tobago Cays.
In my first Caribbean experience, from January 4 through 14 I traveled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines with my girlfriend Jacqueline and her family—just a vacation this time, nothing more. Our home for those ten days was the Park Bay House on the island of Bequia (pronounced beck-way), the largest of the Grenadines chain.

Formerly a British colony famous for its sugar production, whaling fleets, and shipbuilding prowess, SV&G is today an independent nation whose residents are more distinguished for their copious consumption of dancehall reggae and rum.

Bequia hasn't produced one of its traditional hand-hewn sailboats in decades, and the island's whaling trade is capped at four catches per year (though this makes its residents, who claim indigenous rights, one of the last people on earth permitted by international law to hunt whales).