Summer Vacation: Suchitoto getaway

Two years and three weeks ago, Colin and I threw a big party and said some vows, so three weeks ago we celebrated by visiting a tiny mountain town with stinky lake and one of the best hotels in the country. Suchitoto is only about an hour and a half north from San Salvador and has the distinction of being one of the few towns spared during the civil war, so its streets are cobblestoned and its buildings are one-story and surround small courtyards. We walked from the indeed lovely hotel to the lovely plaza in front of the church. That Friday was a national holiday, Father’s Day, so the plaza was full of families enjoying shaved ices and snapping photos. We had a decent lunch on the square and did a bit of souvenir shopping, picking out a new hammock and a clay pitcher.

Our guidebook, an old copy of Central America On a Budget, suggested walking down to the lake, so we set off in the heat Saturday morning, but about 20 minutes in and soaked with sweat, it occurred to me that our book never would have considered that we might be able to drive our own car down. The lake and its recreation area, once we got down there, proved disappointing. Not actually all that stinky, but definitely nicer to look at from afar. After about 15 minutes spent watching the small ferry boats from a park bench with an empty, open-air food court behind us and a curious family next to us, we took our leave. A dip in the hotel pool and a couple hours reading in the courtyard seemed a better use of our time.


Going off island

Colin’s camp doesn’t train on Sundays, so everyone gets a much-deserved break (except me; there are no breaks from the strenuous life I’m living). As luck would have it, the groundskeeper has a new longtail boat, so we were invited out for a good luck ride. The Thais reckon the more people you get on a boat’s maiden voyage, the more luck you’ll have. They told us that when the boat was already packed with a dozen Thais enjoying a meal of curried goat, so we were a little wary about piling on with some 15 other campers. The Thais weren’t coming along for the ride, it turned out, so the 16 or so foreigners climbed on with just enough room after a goat breakfast of our own (I abstained).

Our pilot was taking us on a tour of the nearby islands, beginning with a beautiful cove surrounded by heavily vegetated karsts. He invited us to jump in and I was second to only the crazy Frenchman in getting out of the boat. We could swim right up to the rocks and let the drops of salty water coming off the island splash on our heads. No one seemed as interested as I was in the thick, healthy-looking tree growing in four feet of ocean water, and Colin predictably wanted to climb up the jagged rocks.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the next stop, we waded through Styrofoam, plastics bottles, and coconut husks to follow our guide into a sizeable cave. We followed that with another beach with less trash but five speed boats full of mostly Chinese tourists. Here a few enterprising Thais had tied up some swings and set up some benches, all the more reason for tourists to stick around and buy a beer or coconut from them.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe crazy Frenchman was first in the water again at the next stop, a karst that had a sort of carved-out stairway and ledge for jumping off. The water was a beautiful deep blue, indicative of plenty of depth, but even so everyone else waited to see how our French friend fared before jumping in after him. Even though it couldn’t have been much more than 15 feet above the water, I opted to just swim around the mountain and out away from the boat a bit. The water isn’t quite as clear as it is where we’ve been diving, but it’s wonderfully warm. It’s also home to tiny things that sting or bite when you swim into them.

We stopped at a beach and had an impromptu handstand contest before continuing on to the greatest (only?) challenge of the day. A spit of sand runs up to a muddy (especially with all the rain we’ve had) hill that is laced with trees and holding onto some rather sharp rocks. And we climbed it the way the Thais do, in flip-flops or barefoot. No one escaped clean and a few suffered some slips; there were a number of bloody scrapes by the time we made it back down. It was a fun scramble, though, and a pretty stellar view.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThough we’d had plenty of sunshine during our trip (as Colin’s shoulders now show), we just had time to rinse off and order lunch before the wind whipped up and the clouds rolled in, dousing our island with over an inch of rain in a couple hours.

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

Weekend away: Chefchaouen

Calling something authentically Moroccan in this house is usually a slur, but when we took a long holiday weekend in the hill town of Chefchaouen, renowned across Morocco as being the most iconic Moroccan town, we were happily surprised. It was definitely the cutest town I’ve ever been spat at by a toddler in (which happened almost without warning and with absolutely no explanation, though I did get a wordless apology from her bigger brother).

Meeting the locals.

Meeting the locals.

Chefchaouen took less than a day to explore, so we planned to hike up the peak behind the town on our second day in the area. We had relative luck with the weather—rain made the photos from our first day not quite as bright, but we had sunshine for the start of our hike. Unfortunately, by the time we got 1500 meters up, we were completely fogged in, making our trek to the viewpoint at the top a little silly. We got all the way up there though and found a little patch of snow that had survived in a shady ditch.
Even though Chefchaouen isn’t known for its cuisine, I was pleased with what we found. A warming squash soup and chicken skewers one night, and then a cozy pizza place the next. We had an early morning bus back to Rabat, so we grabbed a few apple tarts the night before that turned out to be quite tasty.
The biggest bummer about Chefchaouen is the five-hour busride to get there. The bus itself was really quite nice and new, so the time wasn’t the worst of it; rather, I’ve found I’ve become more prone to motion sickness the last few years, and the final hour of going up the windy road was a bit too much for me. So even though Colin wants to go back in the spring, I’m not as eager to do that again.
View from above.

View from above.

Finally, Cairo

Our Egypt trip wrapped up in Cairo, home to the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, and two of our SAIS friends.

Home also to koshari, a lentil-noodle-rice mixture we ate all three mornings in Cairo.

Home also to koshari, a lentil-noodle-rice mixture we ate all three mornings in Cairo.

We’d been given a couple warning pep talks regarding our pyramid experience. “Wear a head scarf to attract less attention.” “Don’t let anyone take your ticket.” “Don’t let anyone else into your taxi.” “Bring a guide of your own to help ward off the other touts.” As a result, we went in on hyper alert, and it seemed maybe warranted when a man stopped our taxi to tell us the road ahead was closed and tried to convince our taxi driver to let him in to show us the way there. At Colin’s pleading, our driver sped off. He had to dodge dozens of men standing in the street on the hill up to the entrance, one of whom jumped on the back of our taxi to hitch a ride to the top. It was all a little anxiety inducing, but there were the pyramids towering over us, so we pushed on to get our tickets.
Sphinx and his pyramid
Following instructions, I barreled past the men crowded around the metal detector asking for our tickets. Finally the woman operating the detector jumped up to stop me and insisted that I really did need to show one of them our tickets.

Then we faced the gauntlet of touts inside the compound, hoping to sell us a guided tour or a camel ride. We blew through them and emerged… totally alone. No stragglers, no persistent kids—that was all of it. We shook off the shock and enjoyed our time walking almost completely unbothered, taking our time setting up photos, sitting and resting at the base of the Pyramid of Khafre.
Pyramid camel
I didn’t expect to escape the crowds of Cairo at the pyramids, but it turned out that of everywhere we went in Cairo, the touristy places were dependably the least crowded. We had plenty of breathing room in the musty Egyptian Museum, with a guided tour interrupting the peace only once. The museum is in desperate need of an eager museum studies graduate student with some serious funding to spruce the joint up. Bare energy-efficient bulbs hung from long wires from the ceiling, and where there were labels, many of them had been done on a typewriter. I’m all for embracing the Indiana Jones feel of the place, but the treasures inside the museum deserve better than a central room that has, without explanation or tarps, moving equipment in the corner. Likewise, if in addition to the worldly possessions of King Tutankhamun, you have the second-most impressive collection taken from a pharaoh’s tomb, give it a second-best display rather than leaving it in a room so dark, the stone sarcophagus might easily be mistaken for a bench.
Egyptian Museum Gardens 2
Egyptian Museum Gardense
To go along with some of their commentary on the ongoing revolution, our friend Teresa met us in Tahrir Square one afternoon to show us the street art. There was a sizable encampment there when we visited, but everything was very calm, and there was some new art going up as we walked along the barricaded-off streets. To my surprise, it was the army that had put up the barricades to try to contain the protesters—not the protesters trying to keep out the army (and massively disrupt Cairo’s traffic).
Street art 1
Street art 2
Street art 3
It may have been the only time we will ever be in Egypt, in which case, I’m sorry that we didn’t get back to see Old Cairo, and I’m sorry we had to miss Alexandria, and maybe it would have been worth actually going inside one of the pyramids. We did have an unforgettable trip, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we found ourselves back in that cradle of civilization.

Cairo sunset from Al-Azhar Park.

Cairo sunset from Al-Azhar Park.

Fez for the weekend

Some three hours after leaving Rabat last Friday, we were climbing out of a taxi and meeting the man who manages the guesthouse we’d found on AirBnB. Love that site. Our host recommended the Clock Café for dinner, a popular choice in our guidebook too. As it was a Friday night, the streets were shuttered and quiet except for a few men with nowhere better to be.

Fez has streets the same way Venice has street–the historic medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continuously inhabited city in Morocco, is pedestrian only, with the occasional cart and donkey to help move goods around.

Full from a yummy falafel dinner on the restaurant’s terrace, Colin and I returned to the train station to meet our SAIS and San Diego friend Bryan who had flown in from Madrid and successfully managed to transfer from the airport to the train station without speaking either of the languages of the country.

We had only Saturday to explore the city, so we didn’t mess around. Our guesthouse provided a lovely breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, baguette, jam and cheese, dates, mint tea and coffee. We had a hard day of wandering ahead of us and needed our fuel.

Fez is lovely because it is a city in which you can just wander, and you are bound to see interesting things, but the one thing that guidebooks insist you visit are the tanneries, where they work the skins of camels, cows, and sheep in vats of what Colin thought was urine mixed with natural dyes. Cumin, saffron, mint–a veritable spice bag of colors. Unfortunately, it didn’t smell as good as those spices might suggest—I’d been handed a sprig of mint to mask as much of the stench as possible. The man who’d led us to the tanneries encouraged us to peruse the merchandise, but luckily a tour of Germans came in and we were able to leave without too much pressure.

I don’t want to imagine what these guys smell like after marinating in those vats all day.

Our guide, who practiced the art of what we began calling front-following, led us to a textile maker next. I was talked into buying a scarf, something I wanted anyway, which is supposedly made out of cactus fibers and dyed with mint. I’m very happy with it, even if I did probably spend too much on it.

With rain threatening, we took a break for tea in the Mnebhi Palace, more a residence than a palace but still very charming. We found a rotisserie chicken place for lunch—very Moroccan, proven as the restaurant filled up around us with Moroccans while the cafes a few doors down spilled over with more German tourists and English-speaking waiters.

More wandering brought us to a madrasa, a religious school, that had intricately carved wood trim and colorful mosaic columns. Though not as opulent as many of the cathedrals in Italy, this religious space was certainly beautiful.

Finally we walked with purpose to the vegetable market we’d found sleeping the night before to show Bryan how Moroccans shop. A friendly olive vendor let us sample his different olives, and Bryan bought a single dirham’s worth (about 11 cents) of a bright yellow unknown spice while Colin and I picked out some dates.

We had our snacks back on our terrace as the day turned from dusk to night, then set out for dinner at a restaurant we’d passed earlier. We shared a lemon chicken tajine, preserved lemons and olives swimming around pieces of very tender chicken, and then, since Bryan had an early-morning train and Fez really doesn’t offer much by way of nightlife, we picked our way back through the narrow streets to our guesthouse for the night.

I took too many photos to put up on the blog, so you can see more of our trip by clicking here.