Road trip day 11: Road weary

Miles: 265
Fried green tomato (slices): 3
Carolinas: 2

A couple days earlier we’d finished our truly riveting and time-passing audio book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and so now we were left with commercial-heavy radio, months’ old Radiolab podcasts, and each other’s company to fill the silence. Our mile count wasn’t nearly as high as it had been our first few days, but these miles seemed so much longer.

It got less scenic as we drove north from Charleston, where we had enjoyed a truly fine rendering of chicken and waffles for lunch. We’d also stopped at a roadside stand to buy a snack I’d thought I’d probably never have again, boiled peanuts.

After following one bad lead, we arrived at dusk at a North Carolina campground. The ranger came by on his way out for the night and told us we could pay in the morning if we were still there, but if we had to get on the road before that, to have a safe drive and come back and see them again some other time.


Road trip day 8: Like Vegas, Venice and San Francisco combined

Miles (walking/driving): 10ish/100ish
Walking tours: 2
“Campsites” visited: nearly 5

A self-guided tour of the Garden District, then lunch and a walking tour of the French Quarter in the afternoon. I thought I saw John Goodman sitting on his porch, and I loitered outside of Sandra Bullock’s house hoping she might step out and start chatting with me, but alas. The streetcar on St. Charles Ave. was great for getting to the French Quarter but left us in the cold on the way home. Quiches and pastries, including beignets at Cafe du Monde, plus a beer for the road since open containers are legal in the streets. So weird. One final po’boy, and then we were on our way to try to find camping for the night. And that was an adventure not worth remembering.

“Large Pad Thai, large green curry, small mixed vegetables, and a mango smoothie, please.”

IMAG0745The gym has a restaurant attached where all of the trainees go for most of their meals. There are three Thai women who work there, dishing out heaping plates of Thai cuisine and the occasional fried chicken sandwich. The food is good, cheap, and fresh, and the women are always in a pleasant mood, especially if there’s something being lost in translation.
IMAG0709I do, though, always sort of feel like I’m ordering for an army of people. It’s not unusual to order four people’s worth of food at breakfast for the two of us, and we always order three plates at dinner. The Thai diet, of course, is based on rice and rice noodles, and when you’re expending as many calories as Colin is, one plate of fried rice topped with a fried egg just doesn’t cut it. No clear reason why I almost always match him plate-for-plate. Because it’s delicious?
IMAG0711Also thrown into the mix are these delicious smoothies, which a lot of the campers order with protein powder. They’ve got a chocolate ice cream-banana one that is truthfully a milkshake, but I definitely earn it with 20 minutes in the pool, right?

Anyway, I totally got called out by the Thai woman with the least command of English the other morning. She brought out my 2-egg, 2-toast, beans breakfast and my bowl of yogurt, fruit, and muesli, laughed maniacally, pointed at me and made a “but you’re skinny” motion with her hands. More laughter.

Saturday morning walk

To best keep it out of my falling-apart plastic loafers, I hop over the sudsy water being pushed out of a neighboring apartment building. My eyes follow the soapy bubbles to the gutter, where they join and carry tiny balls of styrofoam. On dry land, I step around the offending packaging lying mostly whole. We don’t buy fish here.

Arriving at my destination, my fruit stall and adjacent bread-goods stall, I collect a lovely assortment of fresh apricots, a ruby grapefruit, and bananas from Ecuador, as well as two pain au chocolat from the perfect little pile. Bees buzz around the glazed almond croissants.

A neighborhood cat is standing guard at our corner. He is bone-thin and so dirty, but at least he has all his fur. A sibling of his stalks by, similarly dirty and thin. This city is hard on animals, animal lovers.

There once was a gal in Rabat,
A chocolaty pastry she got.
She’ll get one tomorrow,
To lessen her sorrow –
The croissants are the only high spot.

Oh, you mean this weekend?

That time when Colin bought a bag of split peas that had more weevils than peas–and we cooked them anyway. The darn peas were so old that they cooked for five hours and were still hard–and we ate them anyway.

And then the day after, we had friends over for wine so poor that we mixed it with pineapple juice and pieces of watermelon and toasted Cinco de Mayo.

Two weeks from now, I’ll be on my way home, and one of these things I will miss, and one of them I won’t. Two years from now, I’m not sure where I’ll be, but I imagine it will be both of these things that I miss.

Spain brings out the glutton in me

More than seeing the Alhambra and more than visiting our Madrid-inhabiting pal, Bryan*, I was most excited for the eating and drinking that was going to happen in Spain.

Colin and I flew into Madrid and navigated three changes on the wonderfully user-friendly subway system there. Our first meal was, regrettably, at VIPS, the Spanish answer to McDonald’s (with beer and a more sophisticated menu, clientele, everything. On second thought, maybe McDonald’s isn’t the appropriate comparison.).

Things got vastly better from there, though. Bryan had a bottle of Spanish red and a leg of ham waiting for us at his apartment, and one of his roommates offered a walking tour of their neighborhood—the heart of touristy Madrid. When Bryan got home from work, we had our first, second, and third of many tapas y cañas at a quiet, locals-only bar: smoked salmon sandwiches, brie on toast, pork two different ways.

The next morning we bused south to Granada, home of the Alhambra, a fortified complex built in 889 for the Sultan of Granada, Yusuf I, later coopted by Carlos V of Habsburg fame, and one of the most beautiful sites in the world. This trip was 100 percent my idea, my enthusiasm: Islamic architecture, I just can’t quit you. We even stayed in the Arabic city (I guess if it were on this side of the Strait, I’d call it the medina), complete with a man leaning out his window to give the call to prayer.

We had our first bites of paella; I enjoyed so much Spanish wine; there were churros dipped in chocolate for breakfast (twice!). Colin was in pork heaven. The paella was one of the few things we ate that wasn’t deep-fried, but as Bryan noted, there’s nearly as much oil in it.

The morning of our trip to the Alhambra dawned beautifully—we broke our fast on the roof and then, shortly after, went out to find lunch on an outdoor patio. That’s when the clouds rolled in. We could not will them away, and the drizzle started within five minutes of our passing through the Gate of Justice. I can say with a certainty that the Alhambra would be absolutely stunning on a sunny late spring day, because even on a drizzly late winter day, it was pretty amazing. I loved some of it so much that it inspired this special bonus guest post on Colin’s blog. Given the opportunity and better weather, I would absolutely go back.

Another bummer, the real tragedy of which was diminished by all of the wonderfulness of being in Spain, was that I carelessly walked off without my camera the afternoon before we visited the Alhambra. We continued on our walking tour of Granada and not five minutes later, I looked for it to capture some graffiti, noticed it was missing, and dashed back to the bench we’d been sitting at. Alas, my trusty point-and-shoot, five years old and with its two failing buttons, was gone. We were left with only Colin’s camera to capture the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, and now the rest of our time in Morocco.

We spent the weekend back in Madrid, eating, drinking, and walking. Although we had nice weather on Saturday for exploring the Buen Retiro Park, Spain was sorry to see us leave the next day and rained on us on our way to the airport.

*Sorry, Bryan, it was a tough bracket.

Easy Essouira

Back to happier thoughts: the final leg of our Moroccan spring break in the beach town of Essouira.
Essouira harbor
I always feel more at home in beach towns. Rabat, although it is situated on both the Atlantic and the Bourgiba River, is not a beach town; it’s too stuffy, too business-centric (as Moroccans go). Maybe because it has rocks instead of beach for its coast. Essouira, on the other hand, is charming and laid back as proper beach towns are: stalls selling fresh-caught fish, orange juice stands, ice cream shops with large patios, a healthy amount of dreadlocks, a huge plaza and miles of shallow beach.
There’s not much to see in the town, but the people watching is enjoyable, and we had a day and a half with perfect weather for it. There are some tide pools beneath the fortified walls that occupied us for a few hours, nearly equal parts broken glass and shells.
Though we didn’t do any extraordinary dining in Essouira, we enjoy two stellar happy hours by combining our dried fruits from Marrakech with some garlic and cumin olives and freshly fried potato chips from the souk. Colin and I have become accustomed to the relative ease of acquiring wine here in Rabat, and we all went on a bit of a goose chase to find drinks to go with our snacks but were in the end successful.
Tide pools
By the time we had our final Moroccan breakfast, I believe we were all ready for a bit of diversity. Without exception, we started every morning with a variety of different breads—baguettes, croissants, delicious fried bread called msemen, plain flat bread, and sometimes semolina flat breads called harcha. Jam, soft cheese, olive oil. Mint tea or coffee. Not bad for a few days, but we were all ready for eggs or oatmeal or almost anything different. Anyway, we had one more Moroccan breakfast on the terrace of our lovely little riad in Essouira before setting out for the long bus ride back to Rabat.

Enjoy pictures from our whole trip!

To the Dunes

From Marrakech, we were collected by our jovial driver/guide Ibrahim for our four-day desert excursion. He set the mood right away; as we zipped toward the Atlas Mountains separating us from the Sahara, his music jumped from 80’s hits to the most viral of today’s music and a smattering of international pop.
So this mountain pass we were going up had been causing minor anxiety for me since we decided to do this trip: stories of buses and hapless tourists losing control are too common for comfort, and it was a major reason why we decided to book with a legitimate, well-reviewed guided tour rather than trying to do it ourselves in a rental. Ibrahim boasted of making this trip sometimes three times a week, and we were in a very comfortable, very new 4×4—and yet, when he was shuffling around for a dropped CD or answering his cell phone as we went around hairpin turns, well, there was a collective sucking in of breath from the rest of us.
Ain Ben Haddou
But we made it, of course, and the payoff was magnificent. We stopped at the picturesque kasbah of Ain Ben Haddou, supported entirely by UNESCO and Hollywood (Sodom and Gomorrah, The Jewel of the Nile, The Sheltering Sky, Alexander, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia, and possibly the newest season of Game of Thrones) and uninhabited but for the trinket shops.
River by Ain Ben Haddou
We drove through the Valley of Roses, which sadly doesn’t bloom until May. We had to settle for second best: the almond trees were flowering, and I like them quite a lot.
Valley of Roses
As we passed through different towns, Ibrahim pointed out the different styles the women were wearing: “This is an Arabic town. See all the women are in black.” Most of the women we saw on our trip and have seen elsewhere in Morocco wear brightly colored djellebas and headscarves—it is very rare that we see a “black ghost” in Rabat—and here away from the cities, we were seeing more bright blue hues, a Berber custom.
Chez Pierre in Dades Gorges
Our first night was at Chez Pierre in the Dades Gorges, towering red rock cut by a swift-moving river and shaped by the wind. The inn was outfitted like a European lodge with some minimal Moroccan touches, and its gardens were bright with flowers and herbs. We had an amazing French meal paired with a mediocre Moroccan wine—the place was nice enough to make Colin concerned he’d misunderstood the price of our tour. He had not.

Evening in the Dades Gorges

Evening in the Dades Gorges

We had more gorges ahead of us, this time the Todra Gorge. The water splitting those rocks was shallow enough to wade through, and we spent a pleasant hour or so there taking photos, skipping rocks, and bouldering.
Towering Todra Gorge

Towering Todra Gorge

By that afternoon, though, we were decidedly on our way to the dunes. We stopped for a mint tea and to change for our camel trek. Ibrahim’s brother (it’s a family business) arranged our headscarves to protect against the wind that was picking up. Good thing, too! If I called what we rode through a sand storm, or even a little sand storm, it would be an exaggeration; however, the wind was blowing the sand strongly enough that we were all glad to be able to wrap up against it.
With camelblowing sandOn camels
After about two hours, our camel caravan arrived at our desert camp. Our guide advised us to hurry up the hill to catch the sunset, which we did with some success. Then it was back to camp for a tajine dinner, a campfire, some drumming, and some riddles.

Climbing back on the camel the next day was no pleasant task, and I think I’ve had enough camel riding for life, maybe. That’s not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the experience, and in fact, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a little adventure.
Sahara Desert
Getting back to Marrakech required two long car days, overnighting in a dazzling hotel in Ouarzazate, a town that didn’t have much else going on. Ibrahim’s music selections now were mostly Moroccan, specifically Berber, and we zipped over the mountain pass again, stopping to see a women’s coop processing argan nuts. That night we would be again in Marrakech, but only as a stopover before heading to the beach.

Spring Break!

A post a day while I’m not working to catch up on these many weeks without regular updates.

Being a substitute, long-term though I may be, means I get to take off for two weeks when our friends come to visit and then another week off when my school goes on spring break. Unpaid leave—gotta love it.
Marrakech from our terrace
Colin and I have been able to see a lot more of Morocco in 2013, but this trip we planned with Brian and Summer was meant to be our last hurrah of sorts. Morocco, with it’s many varied regions and deceptively large size, presents a challenge to travelers who might hope to see it all. Luckily, our friends were satisfied to pass on the tanneries of Fez and the towering Rif Mountains in favor of Morocco’s corner of Sahara and its most touristy city, Marrakech.
Ben Youssef Madrasa reflection pool
I’d heard so much about Marrakech, mostly warnings from friends about the hassling, but also glowing reviews from my students, who, I remind you, are 5, 6 and 7 years old. We approached with a mentality of it being an obligatory stop on our journey to the sand dunes.

Instead we found it pleasant, lively, and delicious. I got my first sunburn of the year as we wandered somewhat lost through the heart of the medina and then beyond, past a forgotten park and a high school that had unfortunately just let out. A little local flavor for our visitors.
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Our riad was run by a German-Moroccan couple and was decked out like the best of the guest houses we’ve been in, with mint tea and nuts on arrival and a lovely seating area in Bryan and Summer’s room that we took advantage of for a night of Bananagrams.
Jemaa El-Fnaa
After dark we headed back out for dinner in Jemaa El-Fnaa. From one direction, you enter via the souks, with slippers, purses, lanterns, soaps, djellebas, and other tourist fare crowding you in; from the other direction, you come from the street and cross the square and the musicians, henna artists, and monkey handlers that fill it. The main event are the food stalls, which every evening, carnival-style, pop up with fully functioning kitchens, dining areas, and dish-washing stations. There are more promoters than potential customers in the avenues between stalls, beckoning you into their particular square of white plastic tabletops, fluorescent lighting, and meat skewers. “It’s finger-licking good,” “Stall number 11, straight to Heaven,” “Save the drama for Obama,” etc.
lentil stall
Before too long, we learned to look for the few stalls in between catering to mostly Moroccans and took our spots on the bench for shallow bowls of lentils and steaming cups of mint tea. For simplicity’s sake, we went back the next night, and again when we overnighted in Marrakech after our desert trip. Dessert was a glass or two of fresh-squeezed orange juice and our selection from the wide pickings of figs, dates, apricots, and nuts. The food alone will help us remember Marrakech with fondness.
fig stall

Weekend away: Tangier

Door of the Grand Mosque

Door of the Grand Mosque

To honor our presidents, Colin and I spent last weekend in the port city of Tangier, soaking up the relaxed vibes of people who can easily get out and enjoy a beach.
Tangier coastIMG_9593_819x614
In the Grand Socco

In the Grand Socco

Our afternoons were whiled away in the enclosed patio of beautiful Dar Jameel: Wolf Hall, jazz, and big decisions about the near future. We visited the only American historical site located abroad, what had been our original embassy in Morocco. We watched Spain while keeping honeybees out of our mint tea. Popeye served up my birthday dinner.
Sunday morning market

Sunday morning market

Fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, french fries in my sandwich: I like Tangier.

Kasbah courtyard

Dar Jameel

Dar Jameel inner courtyard