Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Note on Moroccan Public Transportation

Much of the trip has been spent getting from one destination to the next, which I guess can be said about life in general. There's a lot of Morocco to see out the window of a moving vehicle.

Enjoying the scenic rides has actually been one of my favorite parts of the trip, which I guess could also be said about life in general.

Sometimes Dan and I actually looked forward to a long, lazy time just sitting. We're getting to know the Moroccan transportation systems well.

1. We know that Dan will always get stuck paying extra for his checked bag.

That I will do whatever it takes to keep my backpack with me at all times. No stowing it under the bus. No throwing it on top of the van.

2. That it's a good idea to share food and other goodies with your fellow passengers. Kinder chocolates. Dates. Tylenol.

3. That a woman will inevitably vomit somewhere near us.

4. That they can always fit one more person into the vehicle.

5. That the journey will always take a few hours extra than expected.

6. That someone will get into an argument in Arabic.

7. That we will reluctantly have to pull out the guidebook upon arrival because we realize we once again forgot to make plans and have no idea where we are, where we're going, or where we will sleep that evening.
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Travel Notes: Marrakech, Part Deux

We return to Marrakech, but this time opt to stay around Gueliz in the new city instead of by the older part of town near the medina.

Wow. What a different world...just a 30 min walk away from where we were before.

The snake charmers and three dirham orange juice stands have been replaced by trendy cafes selling gelato and sleek boutiques alongside Lacoste and Zara clothing stores.

There are young people everywhere at night. Hip, young people. Women with hair uncovered. Leather jackets. High heels.

1. Hotel Toulousain: 190 dh, including breakfast. Heavy fragrance of sweet orange blossoms fills the courtyard. High ceilings. Standard breakfast with OJ from the trees above.

2. McDonald's: Everyone inside looks cooler than us. And it's packed. It's almost midnight. We debate whether to try a McTagine. We don't. My only regret of the trip.

3. Jardin Majorelle: Amazing gardens created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Acquired and restored by Yves Saint Laurent after Jacques' death in 1962. What a worldly collection of plants.
Lots of cacti from Mexico. Those are my favorite. Water fountains. Brightly colored pots and walkways. Electric blues. Canary yellows. Soft oranges.

A memorial to Yves Saint Laurent is set up with a single fluted column and a sign at the bottom that reads "silence" in English and Arabic. I like this a lot.

We spend a lot of time just sitting on a bench. I wonder if my life can always be this simple.

4. Small pastry shop: Plates of goodies covered in plastic wrap line the tables alongside the walls. We pick a bitter sesame seed stick and an almond shaped shiny crispy thing with a dot of date jam in the middle. The nice man let's us have them for free.

Our first taste of the Marrakech hospitality that we'd read so much about. Hospitality should always be date flavored.

5. Plats haj Boujemaa: Packed with locals for lunch. Diced tomato and onion salad. Bowl of olives with preserved lemon. Tanjia of sheep, which Marrakech specializes in. So much rich fatty oil for sopping up with the bread.

As I think we've done with every meal, we clean the plate, bread basket included.

6. Gare de Marrakech: Train station is massive and pretty ornately decorated. Too bad we've missed the last bus to Essaouira though. We take a cab to the main bus station to catch another ride out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

On our last night with Youssef, our Berber tour guide to the desert, he asked to go through all the photos from my trip.

The first leg is pretty much a slide show of my dear friend Pris on various islands in Greece. Pris at the Parthenon. Pris eating spaghetti. Pris climbing a mountain. Pris playing with cats.

Youssef very much liked Pris. He asked that I bring her back to Morocco next time, so she could marry a good Berber man.

"For marriage! Marriage." (as he motioned placing a ring on his left hand and then pointed to my camera)

He promised he would feed her well with lots of tagine, couscous and kebab.

The day before he had showed us a video on a friend's phone of a traditional Berber wedding ceremony. They last days and involve the bride riding to the groom's home on a camel carrying a load of children in the back.

When I asked who the kids were, he said they were probably just random ones from the didn't really matter. They were meant to bring luck and symbolize a fertile future for the happy new couple.

Don't they tie bells and flowers on the backs of "just married" cars for newlyweds in the States? Or shoes? I guess it's the same thing.

Anyway, it all looks like great fun. Plus, he promised me a fair dowry with many surprise gifts upon our return. I bet I could have gotten a camel out of him for the exchange.

I think she could be happy here too. She loves the beach but doesn't go in the ocean...the sandy Sahara would be perfect! A nice, dry heat and lots of sunshine. There are cats everywhere. Lots of good food to eat.

But they don't do pork, so no bacon...probably a deal-breaker.

Well, if Pris' move to San Francisco or where ever else doesn't pan out, there's always a backup plan in Morocco.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Leaving the Desert

The night before we left the desert, Youseff, who we were huge fans of until then, tried to offer us a dash of cayenne and convince us to pay him extra to take the camels nine kilometers to the next village where we could catch a more direct route to his cousin's riad in Afah.

The alternative would be to walk four kilometers the other direction to the main road and possibly get stuck in the heat waiting for a car. There was also a taxi strike going on in Zagora, which could complicate matters.

In trying to convince us to pay the 300 dirham for the camels (he eventually brought the price down to 50 each if we threw in Dan's headphones...or a shirt or some jewelry), he insisted the walk would be too strenuous with our bags and that we were too "gentle" to make it.

Little did he know, that's a severe insult for a small girl with a napoleon complex and distaste for words like "cute," "delicate," or anything implying weakness. Plus, we're both always up for a challenge and a good story.

So we walk. Blazing Saharan sun. Sand in shoes. Sand in face. Sand everywhere. Bags in tow...until we reach the nearest road.

Please note that this is all while wearing a black, long sleeve jacket as my attempt to be modest and respectful here, which is a little absurd as Dan spent the better part of the previous day entertaining the men with multiple screenings of Shakira's "She Wolf" video on his iPod.

If you haven't seen it yet, you should look it up (or just click below), but it's not exactly a model display of modesty and restraint.

Anyway, we hitchhike on the back of a truck through the mountains into Oulad Driss, where, through lots of confusion, yelling in Arabic, angry people, strike complications, we manage to take a few taxis to the riad, where we stay the night with his cousin.

First shower in a few days. Hot water! Olive and tomato omelet. Generous bowls of fruit. Camel tagine.
Pick fresh dates off the palm trees from the roof terrace. So many luscious, sweet dates!

Spend a lot of time together watching TV. An Arabic hidden camera show. National geographic type show on China. Camel racing.

It's calm here. So worth the walk.

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Secret Agent Man

So it turns out that Youssef and everyone else have suspicions that Abdell, our fellow tourist friend from Casablanca, is a member of the royal family's special police brigade.

Or perhaps he's a distant relative of the king who just wanted to get away from the pressured royal life and live among the common people for a relaxing desert getaway.

He told us he's some kind of trader who buys and sells all kinds of goods, from radios to clothing.

I guess he kept sneaking off to make secret phone calls and apparently introduced himself to us with all different names. Lots of questionable behavior and unaligned stories.

My guess is that he's just a regular drug dealer.

Who knows. But what a fun adventure!

He gave us his email, so we're going to try to track him down when we go to Casablanca.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Like Sand Through the Hourglass, These Our the Days...

We spend a night strolling through Ouarzazete, the Hollywood of Africa. The largest movie studio in the country is here, and the city has played the backdrop for notable American films such as Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator and Star Wars. Even the pristine new buildings and palm tree lined streets have a very LA vibe.

This is really just a stopover destination for us though as we're in search of a way to the desert...although we weren't sure which one yet.

We dodge the many tour guides on the street who approach us from all sides. One even followed us back to our hotel to negotiate a cheaper price.

Now, it seems a little counter intuitive to avoid the tour guides with possibly reputable businesses -- or at least somewhat legitimate looking storefronts -- when you are in fact looking for someone to guide a tour for you, but we've lost all trust and patience for anything resembling a sales pitch.

Instead, we meet a guy on the street who notices that we speak English and asks a favor of us to transcribe a letter for his Japanese pen pal.

He invites us into the store where he works for a cup of tea. Got to love that Berber hospitality. Turns out his family lives in the Draa Valley and some near the mountains outside the desert south of here. We ask if he'll show us around, so we can get an authentic Berber experience.

And that's how we met Youssef Sami, our tour guide for our journey to the Sahara desert (of course we negotiate more than a fair price for his services).

About six hours and a few petit and grand taxi rides later (through small villages, mountains, valleys, lunch of stewed beef with hard boiled eggs and prunes in Zagora, and a palmiere with over 45 species of dates), we arrive at our destination: a circle of Berber style tents made of sheep and camel wool, amid kilometer upon kilometer of rolling, cream-colored folds of silky, rippling sand dunes in all directions.

I've only really been camping once, and I'm not even sure if it counts. It was in the 5th grade with my dear friend Lauren's family.

It strikes me as a bit hilarious that my second try camping is in the Sahara desert (I'm not counting the nightmare hostel experience in Greece with Pris).

It's a pretty luxurious set up as far as Berber camping goes...maybe this one doesn't count either.

The food has been awesome:

1. Beef tagine with potatoes, zucchini, carrots, onions.

2. Loads of fresh fruit with cinnamon: pomegranates, tangerines, apples, bananas.

3. Camel milk: a special request from us. We read a WSJ article a while ago that described the stuff as "liquid gold" for its impressive medicinal qualities. It tastes like slightly sour buttermilk. Very thick with some lumps. Kind of salty and tangy. Pleasant though.

4. Sardine salad with diced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, olives. So Mediterranean.

5. Spiced tomato omelet tagine.

6. Bread for breakfast with apricot, strawberry, fig jams and Laughing Cow cheese. It seems to be big here.

7. Camel stew: another special request. Served over bed of fluffy couscous, a huge specialty in the area. Camel tastes like beef, but much more tender.

Between all the eating, we find time for a three-hour camel ride to larger dunes.

Frolicking barefoot through fine, soft hills of sand induces such a childlike wonder, I can't help but giggle the whole day. I just can't grasp the reality that I'm playing in the Sahara desert.

The stars sparkle so vividly out here that it's almost violent -- like an intense dance to one of the spontaneous drum circles that we've been having. Mars looks like a techno dance party rave.

Our guide as well as the couple of local guys he enlisted to help us, and Abdel, who is from Casablanca and decided to join us after meeting in a taxi, are all extremely joyful and friendly. There's a lot of laughing and communicating with gestures and a broken mix of English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Italian. A constant game of charades...sometimes Pictionary in the sand.

Even surrounded by such a dry expanse of desert sands, there can be so much life!

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Friday, November 13, 2009

The Wheels on the Beat-Up-Overcrowded-Moroccan-Van Bus Go...

This has been such a fascinating ride to Ouarzazete.

Steep, rocky, narrow roads that weave through the mountainside. Colorful, but not the way Marrakech was.

Shades of brown from dull, pale to deep red hues, grassy golden tones, bright green patches flow throughout the landscape. Then cubist cliffs streaked with orange. Rolling hills polka-dotted with puffs of strubbery. Monochrome, smooth, dark mountains in the distance.

Jangling Arabic music. Bump bump.

We're in a van that reminds me of my dad's catering van for the restaurant. No sesame chicken here though. Just loads of Berbers coming and going and two bewildered Americans in the back.

It would seat about 14 comfortably. About 20 uncomfortably, not including the kid on the roof with the luggage or the guy hanging out the side from the open door.

Dust flows in from the open windows. Clouds of dirt season the dates, bread and almonds we're snacking on. I wrap my scarf around my head like a traditional Arab woman to keep the dusty breeze out of my hair.

Dan wonders what they must think of us. This is not a common tourist route.

What would we think if we saw a couple of Berbers on a regional bus on the back roads of small town Texas? If one threw on a cowboy hat out of nowhere? If they kept mumbling something that resembled "Thank you very's two expensive...thank you very's too expensive" (the Arabic words we keep practicing with one another)?

Whoa. Suddenly we stop and hear the sound of someone coughing, vomiting. It's the woman crammed in front of us...we think. It's hard to tell when we're all so tightly packed.

Somehow I'm not grossed out. I like this place.
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Travel Notes: Demnate/Iminifri

The sights:

1. Hike through the Grotto's Mouth. Geological structure that reminds us of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Streams. Dripping stalagmites (Stalactites? Stalagtites?). The two sides of the gorge are said to represent two forbidden lovers whose interlocked hands on either side were turned to stone.

2. Two hourish leisurely walk to town along a quiet road carved through the foothills of the Atlas mountains.

3. Meet our "friend" Samir (who works at the hotel and speaks Spanish), and he shows us around Demnate. I should note that we've learned a little from the lesssons of Marrakech and explained upfront to him that we were not interested in paying for the services of a tour guide.

He still wanted to hang with us! We gave him 40 dirham when we left to show our appreciation for all his help and the kindness of the Berber people. However, there was a little confusion in settling our hotel bill, and I think we still got ripped off...but not by much this time.

4. Beef tagine for lunch. There's a row of small restaurants here who all compete for the best tagine in town. Apparently there is one tagine restaurant for about every 40 people.

5. Climb a big mountain. Proud moment for a couple of amateur rock climbers.

6. Chicken tagine for dinner. Mini tour of kitchen and lesson on tagine cookery. There's four or five separate mixes of spices that go into just one tagine!

7. Samir helps us find a bus to the desert in the morning.
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Melting (Tagine) Pot

The riad we find in Iminifri just a bit outside of Demnate (with the help of the newlywed Belgian friends we made on the way) is the perfect departure from the city.

Silence. Dirt paths. Friendly, small-town community feel of Berber people. Tree-covered, purple-tinted mountains. Garden in the backyard. Home-cooked meals (this area is known for having the best tagines). Room built of straw and packed reddish brown mud. Cold showers. Twinkling, vibrant night sky.

I feel like I can breathe again.

There are three other couples staying with us from a combination of Whales, Belgium, Spain, Morocco. We sit by the fire outside, sip Pastis and mint tea, grill flat bread, eat sheep tagine (incredible!), converse in a mix of English, Arabic, French and Spanish.

I think it's worth mentioning that the guy from Whales is a freelance circus performer. He worked for a few months in India on stilts as the mascot for a cricket team called the Calcutta Night Riders.
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Bus to Demnate

We planned on spending more time in Marrakech but decide we're sick of the city life.

It's an amazing experience with lots to see...your senses are constantly overwhelmed by new sights, smells and sounds...but also salesmen.

We hop on a bus to Demnate a few hours away (of course, not without a few complications and some haggling). There were even people selling items throughout the aisles of the little bus on the way there.

Views of sand dunes, olive groves, a man boarding the bus with a bound dead sheep in hand (Dan thinks the dead part is debatable). Regardless, it went in the cargo area below with our bags.

For most of the two-and-a-half-hour ride, the bus smelled of a sweaty, dusty cheese shop. Dr. Dre played on the radio for a bit. Then some Arabic tunes. Lots of talking loudly and clapping going on as well. I guess they clap instead of pressing a "stop requested" button.
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I Got Yelled at by a Snake Charmer

On our way to get our bread breakfast, we passed some snake charmers pleading us to take photos.
I told him I only had a dirham on me (which was true), and he said I could pay what I wanted and that was fine.
So I took some photos, and he kept chasing us with snakes and having us take more photos.
Then I handed over a dirham and was ready to go on my merry snake charmed way.
But then the man flipped out on me for not offering enough. I've never seen anyone go so quickly from charming snake charmer to hateful angry eyed screamer.
There's nothing like getting yelled at in the middle of a busy square by a man holding snakes.
I just can't get used to these Moroccan business transactions.
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More Sheep Face, etc.

Our last night in Marrakech we went back to the Medina (that's what they call the walled in city) square to find some cheaper eats again.

We went to another busy looking stall with a row of sheep heads in the front. We ordered:

1. Tanjia: stew with tons of spices and also tastes pretty lemony, a well-known dish from this area of Morocco; they said it was lamb, but we're pretty sure it was more sheep.

2. Sheep brain: tasted like egg yolk, rich buttery textured, nicely spreadable on the flat bread.

3. Sheep tongue: surprisingly delicious and not an icky texture at all.

4. Sheep mammary: nothing too special...don't totally understand what we were eating here; maybe I have the translation wrong.

5. More cups of free mint/sugar tea: there were a few more shopkeepers after our "friend" Khalid who offered us free tea throughout the day. I felt weird turning it down because of my severe fear of dirty water. Luckily, my bowels are doing quite well, even after about six cups in one day! I think I'm safe!

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Travel Notes: Marrakech Day 2 AKA Day of the Scams AKA We got Cayenned

Our first full day in Morocco was a big learning experience. When you're a tourist, especially who can't speak either of the main languages of your current destination (Arabic and French in this case), being scammed is just a way of everyday life you come to accept.

However, I wasn't fully prepared for just how clever the salesmen are here! Even when you don't realize what they're selling, you've probably already been sold.

I feel extremely safe though. There's little chance that anyone will be stealing from you while you're not looking because they're too busy stealing from you right in front of your face...and with a smile.

1. Stop in a souq selling spices. The shopkeeper is insistent that we sit down while he shows us everything he has to offer. He's very friendly and charming, cracking jokes about Michael Jackson changing colors as he demonstrates a brown colored natural pigment that turns blue in water.

We learn lots about the different teas and supposed medicinal qualities and cosmetic purposes of certain herbs and spice blends. There's a male and female version of viagra tea. Cumin cures gas. Kohl for the eyes.

I'm out of soap, so I purchase a nice smelling bar of amber.

We buy way more "ras al hanout" than intended, which is a blend of 35 spices and literally translates to "top of the shop." I used to buy it at a spice shop (Christina's) in Cambridge, Mass., and am a big fan of the stuff for tagines or as a marinade.

The shopkeeper lets us sample a whiff of his blend, which is supposed to represent a mix of the best spices in his shop, and then he spoons some into a bag for us from a separate bigger barrel.

We negotiate a price, which we later realize is still a bit high, but oh well.

The soap: After one shower, I certainly don't feel any cleaner. It just rubs off this grimy yellow substance instead of a nice, frothy lather. At least it smells pretty still.

When we try our baggy of bright orangey-red, overpriced spices with bread, I quickly realize it's not the same as what we'd smelled before, but instead it's basically just...cayenne pepper, which has become our new catch phrase for being scammed.

2. Visit the Bahia Palace for 10 dirham. Lots of beautiful tile work, light fixtures and carved walls with ornate stone designs. Actually looks a lot like our hostel though. Think we may have gotten cayenned on this one.

However, the former resident slave-turned-vizier Abu Bou Ahmed had a harem there that housed four wives and 24 concubines. Also the site of P. Diddy's 30the birthday extravaganza.

3. Dar si Said. 10 dirham again. Museum with local crafts, such as rugs, jewelry, clothing and tea pots from the 1900s on display. Actually looks a lot like the items on sale all around us in the souqs. Cayenned again.

4. Meet a new "friend" Khalid who invites us for tea in the shop where he works. Insists he just wants to practice his English as he's going to university in Toronto next year. He doesn't want any money from us.

We have a lovely conversation seated in a circle on a rug of the shop, sipping super sweetened Moroccan mint tea (I was nervous about drinking the water, but I seem to be fine so far...we had about four free cups). In addition to standard small talk, we discuss themes of politics, cultural identities, future life goals and aspirations, traditional and modern gender roles, and human rights.

He seems very intelligent and offers some good advice on how to approach Marrakech as a tourist.

Khalid even takes us to dinner because we needed assistance finding traditional Moroccan fare, not the tourist stuff. He says he'll help us save money as students.

However, when he brings us to a fancy restaurant steps from the main square, which is filled with white people and has a 180 dirham fixed price menu (that's$23.50 USD and more than nine times what we paid for dinner the night before), we knew something was wrong. We were about to get cayenned.

Dan and I give each other a panicked tourist look and simultaneously begin explaining that we can't afford this meal. Then we bolt for the door as Khalid keeps explaining that he can still meet up with us the next morning to show us his favorite hammam (public baths that are popular here) or introduce us to some of the cheaper travel agencies.

All of a sudden our whole three-hour friendship with Khalid is based on lies. We replay everything we've said to each other. Was any of it true?

Does his friend really go to Harvard?

Is his father really a philosophy professor?

Did P. Diddy really have his birthday party at the Bahia Palace?

Does he really have two dogs?

Ugh. Suddenly everything in this town tastes of cayenne!
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First Night in Morocco and Another Apu Moment

I've never experienced anything like Morocco before. The second we step foot off the plane in Marrakech we love it already. Such colors and warmth.

If I could read energies (like my dear friend Perna can), Barcelona would be a light aqua blue...maybe robin's egg, but Marrakech would be an explosion of rich, loud hues. In fact, we saw a random rainbow in the sky as we were landing. Maybe I CAN see auras.

Ooh, the sensory overload:

1. Cab drops us off near the main square. Find a hostel called Central Palace. Amazing tiled courtyard and rooftop terrace. Pretty decorative light fixtures hanging everywhere. Ornately designed iron window coverings.

2. We've spent a lot of time in Djemaa El-Fna, the central square of the old town. It's a massive, sprawling open space with food vendors, all kinds of performers and beggars. Multiple roads stretch out from every direction with souqs, the small shops that sell ornate shoes, bags, rugs, belts, scarves, traditional Moroccan dress, and oh so much more.

3. The moment we enter the square Dan gets accosted by a man with a monkey on a leash. I run away (my mother taught me to trust no one, so I try not to allow strangers on the street to come within touching distance of me...even ones with adorable monkeys, which she would have loved.).

Man with monkey: "Welcome! Welcome! Don't be scared! He doesn't bite!"

I'm a little scared.

Monkey proceeds to jump on Dan's shoulder and bites him. He looks like the little fellow from the movie Outbreak. Luckily, he doesn't break through Dan's jacket.

A REAL Apu moment! Welcome to Marrakech, kids.

4. Scooters, bikes and donkeys whiz by in all directions. Well, the donkeys more accurately go at a lazy trot. Lots of honking. Yelling.

5. Try a glass of fresh squeezed OJ from a stall. It's so refreshing and delicious. I wonder for a second if I've somehow been drugged. Only 3 dirham each. The man doesn't have enough change for us so tells us to come back later to return the 1 dirham we owe him (that's like 13 cents).

6. As we walk down the crowded aisles, food salesmen approach us from every direction:

"Come! See menu! Good prices! Sit down, my friend! No good, no pay. I promise."

"Hello! Speak English? Come. I have tagine, pastilla. Very good!"

"What's up, man!"

"Where you from? Come eat! Yes? No? Maybe later? Come back?! Promise? Promise? Maybe later alligator?"

"Tagine here! No KFC, but finger licking gooood."

"Kenichiwa! Arigato!" (Everyone here thinks I'm Japanese, and most vendors can speak a remarkable amount. One guy talked to me for almost five minutes straight. I didn't want to disappoint him, so I just said, "Arigato! Very good!" in my best Japanese accent, giggled and bowed my head as I ran away.)

"Come back tomorrow! Maybe later? Don't forget! I'm number 1-1-7...closest to heaven."

Everyone has their own catchphrase to charm you or memory trick to recall their stall number. It gets a little tiresome, but they're actually so friendly and funny in person that it's quite effective. One guy does this thing where he put lettuce on his head and uses a cucumber as a telephone to call's very cute.

7. We go with a busy looking stand selling a giant pile of snails in a steel pot full of boiling broth. We pull the snail flesh out with toothpicks and dump the shells into communal buckets. Chewy. Flavorful. Broth tastes like some kind of spiced, salty tea.

We tried to use one of our 200 dirham bills on this guy too, but he can't break it. He tells us to come back later to pay the five we owe him for the bowl of bug (65 cents).

What's with all the trusting and IOUs?

We pay him with some of the smaller bills we have, and go back to the OJ guy to return the dirham with the change we receive from the snail man.

8. Next up is another busy stand full of locals. Row of sheep's heads in the front case with a man standing behind them hacking away at various parts.

We order lamb (which we're convinced is actually sheep...where else would the rest of those sheep go?) and a mixed plate (which is just random face...piece of tongue, slice of what may be a slightly hairy ear, other undefinable pieces).

We point to an especially perplexing and interestingly textured bit and ask the food guy what it is. Emphatic, vague reply: "head."

Despite the confusion and overwhelming environment, it's a very pleasant meal. We're served round loaves of soft, crusty bread that you use to scoop up the meat with your hands instead of using flatware. It's got a nice, dense, spongey texture kind of like a pugliese bread.

Always use your right hand as the left is your potty hand.

There's a communal bowl full of spices and salt (tastes like dukkah to me, which if you entered my Cambridge apartment the last weeks I was in town, I probably forced you to eat with olive oil and bread). We sprinkle it generously on everything, even though it's all already quite flavorful.

The lamb comes with an additional half slice of bread soaked in oily, meaty juices. Kind of like a French dip sandwich.

Dan gets a tea. I'm refraining from any non bottled forms of water to spare my stomach from what would most likely be guaranteed unfortunate side effects.

9. We finish the night wandering the open-air theater, staring at clumps of people/"performers" doing strange things and trying to avoid the many children begging for money and little girls grabbing your hands, giving you hugs and trying to sell you bags of tissues. Drum circles. Dancing. Moroccan versions of carnival games.

10. Walk to the minaret, tallest point in the area, and pass a group of young men clapping together around their scooters. Just standing in a circle. Clapping in unison. Having a grand ole time.

Marrakech is the best.

Monday, November 9, 2009

4 Hours. 12 Courses. 5 Senses.

This post is only for those with a morbid curiosity to know every detail about my meals I have a feeling that's just me.

Our last night in Barcelona we made reservations to dine at the tasting menu only Cinc Sentits and pretended for just one evening that we weren't two unemployed wandering soon-to-be students.


1. Zarate Tras da Viba. D.O. Rias Baixas. Albarino. 2005. Bright, fruity. Albarino is a typically Catalan white grape varietal from the area north of us.

2. Bodegas Fefinanes. Fefinanes III Ano. D.O. Rias Baixas. Albarino. Smoky, minerally. Aged in steel for three years.

The menu:

1. Three snacky bites to start. Bowl of marcona almonds. Fig and anchovy bread sticks. Stuffed olives.

Bread served with two types of olive oil. Both from just north of Barcelona.

2. Layered foamy, creamy maple syrup shots with chunks of salt at the bottom. This was much tastier than I just made it sound.

3. Pan con tomate. Fresh tomato sorbet with garlic bubbles, sausage flake, mini croutons, green tomato relish in a puddle of olive oil. Tasted kind of like frozen Campbell soup.

4. Foie gras terrine coca. Slab of rich foie from Baix Emporda topped with carmelized sugar and chopped chives on a bed of glazed leeks and a thin pastry crust. So rich and sweet, it felt like dessert.

As a side note, my culinary student friend from the farm said she saw a video of a foie gras farm in class. Apparently the geese actually run to the feeders every day to be fed. We overheard the waitress saying the same thing to the table next to us. So maybe it's not such a cruel food? Or more likely just effective foodie propaganda?

5. Perfectly poached farm fresh egg (such a cheerfully orange yolk on the little guy!) from Llobregat atop smashed potatoes (should really just call it what it is: smashed butteriness with splash of potato). Also, the menu said the chicken was "blue-legged." Anyone know what that means and why that is a desirable trait?

An optional course, which we felt necessary to pay the extra 10 euros to incorporate. The waiter brought out a hunk of white truffle and shaved sheets off tableside. There was an electronic scale and everything! Such showmanship. 6 euros per gram. We purchased 2.5. Sooo worth it.

6. Wild Mediterranean mullet. Wrapped in a clear cellophane bag. Waitress cut it open upon serving, and the bright aromas of lemon thyme and veggies just hit you in the face. More showmanship! Love edible entertainment.

7. Seared langoustine tail with catalan picada and truffled lentils. The langoustine was so tender and sweet it was reminiscent of our smashed butteriness.

8. Cube of Iberian suckling pig from nearby Extremadura. Cooked over 24 hours with a light, crisp fatty crust. Served with a spiced apple puree and a sauteed apple wedge.

9. Farmhouse cheese course. Catalan goat cheese with a basil infused tomato, sprigs of fresh basil and drizzled with more basil in oil form. Eh, a little too sweet for my taste. Could have done without this one.

10. Chamomile ice cream with diced peach rectangles and a cloud of pistachio dust. Few things in life more deliciously comforting than sweet, milky chamomile. It's what I imagine a big, cozy armchair (much like the one in my former and Pris' current apartment) and a good book or NPR radio show on a winter day would taste like.

11. Chocolate (67% to be exact) mousse with olive oil ice cream, shattered bread (yes, this just means bread crumbs, but it's what the menu actually said) and chopped macadamian nuts.

12. Trio of chocolate and hazelnut brittle, shot of cream with violet gelee and an almond cookie.

And now we are living off bread to make up for this indulgent splurge. Thank goodness for cheap Moroccan food though!

Travel Notes: Barcelona

We left Barcelona today, so I most likely won't have too much time to update from now on as I won't have Internet access on my phone until I'm in Taiwan on Nov. 21. I'll be checking email though.

Barcelona is such a wonderful city. I wish we could have stayed longer!

It's got a great energy to it, and the architecture is so different. Gaudi, who is responsible for the aesthetic of most of the city, was such a weirdo. Who approved all these crazy designs?

Day 1

1. Met Dan at the hostel pretty late. The hostel Sants One has a fun vibe with lots of youngsters, but that staff seems a bit dense. Location isn't great. Wouldn't recommend it.

2. Grabbed beers at bar down the street and caught up on each other's traveling adventures. The first time we met we decided to meet up in China in about a year, and then added Barcelona and Morocco later on a whim. Feels strange having actually followed through and made it here.

Day 2

1. Cafe con leche for breakfast. If not noted, just assume I'm eating bread and something out of a jar from the farm for every other meal.

2. Pleasant walk through Arch de Triomph, along water, through some narrow alleys to find a tapas bar for lunch. This city has such a cool, friendly spirit.

3. Wind up in La Merce, which according to a guidebook I read that day I spent 8 hours in a Barnes & Noble at home, is a blue collar neighborhood with cheap, traditional tapas. Ended up at the bar of this tiny place. Tortilla Espanola and sardines (big, yummy fleshy ones) soaked in garlic, parsley and vinegar.

4. Walk a bit. Find another cheap tapas place that looks good. Spontaneous second lunch. Chorizo with peppers on sticks over crostini. Jamon with jalapenos over more crostini. Glass of sidra poured out of a giant barrel. Tastes like mix of apple juice, beer and champagne.

5. Some rambling down La Rambla (a long pedestrian walkway full of little vendors, cafes and performers dressed up in interesting costumes for photo opps) and La Boqueria (what must be the most amazing market in the world).
We purchase plenty of snacks: madronos (little red berries that taste like gritty apricots), figs, three different kinds of mushrooms, Pernil Bodega jamon, roncal queso (sheep's milk cheese), a block of membrillo (quince paste) and a bottle of coffee flavored olive oil.

6. Viena Cafe for the best sandwich ever, according to Mark Bittman of the NY Times. Jamon Iberico with cheese and a bit of tomato paste on a light, crusty loaf. Perfectly proportioned, but not my best ever. We preferred Oprah's fave from Govind Armstrong's place in Miami.

7. Then we make stops by the Christopher Columbus monument and Gaudi's
La Sagrada Familia cathedral. Lots of weird imagery of Native Americans kneeling down and gratefully kissing the hands of Spaniards. Then just a beautiful mess of cement and dramatic spires at the cathedral, which was such a massive undertaking by Gaudi and the city that it's still under construction...I feel like that's partially a tourist gimmick though.

8. We make dinner back at the hostel kitchen, which consists of pasta tossed in the coffee olive oil and a little bit of the jamon and sheep cheese with the sauteed mushrooms and, of course, a bottle of cheap tempranillo.

Day 3

1. Breakfast on the roof of the hostel.

2. Spend most of the morning at the Museu Picasso. One of my favorite art stops on the trip yet as I'm a big Picasso fan. Focus was mainly on his early years and time spent living in Barcelona.

Loved his Las Meninas series, which are over 50 interpretations of Velasquez's famous painting at the Prado in Madrid. Thought-provoking. Fun. There was also a special exhibit about "Secret Images," which explored the erotic Japanese screen prints that inspired Picasso and many of his peers during this time. Included some of Picasso's personal collection. Lots of octopus finding romance with women.

3. Grab jamon/queso and chorizo sandwiches from a stand near La Boqueria. Only place we could find to sit was inside a playground, so we risk looking creepy and eat there among the frolicking Spanish children.

4. Hot chocolate and coffee at Cafe L'Opera. Coffee nice and strong. Hot chocolate was literally a melted bar of chocolate in a little tea cup. We drank it with a spoon.

5. Stroll up MontJuic (Mt. Jew). Sneak into a park to watch the sunset. Something rowdy and fun sounding happening at the Olympic stadium below. Get yelled at (more like a loud talking to actually) by some security guards and forced to make our way back down the Jew mountain.

6. Buy salted, fried cod balls and brazil nuts on the way home. Neither taste that great.

7. Over four-hour dinner at Cinc Sentits. 11 courses. I'll have to do a whole separate post for this one.

8. Post-dinner digestive walk through what is similar to Barcelona's 5th ave shopping district. See Gaudi's Pedrera and Baclio buildings. More curvy, undulating, cement dripping craziness.

Day 3

1. Lots of being late. Running places. Barely making our flight out to Marrakech. But then we somehow end up being early for boarding. Good thing we didn't waste too much effort stressing over it.

2. Adios, Espana...but most likely "hasta luego."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I´m in Milano, Bitch (get the song...)

I only had a few hours in Milan, so I made my way to the world´s largest Gothic cathedral. It took about 600 years to finish! And there are about 3,400 statues, 1,355 spires and 155 gargoyles. It was pretty tacky, but in a pretty way.

I didn´t have time to run to Da Vinci´s Last Supper, so I had a leisurely last lunch in Italy instead. Went to a place called Trattoria da Pino, which has a three course lunch with a bottle of aqua frizzante (my fave) or wine for 15 euros. When I arrived it was filled with chatty local businessmen. Seemed like a good sign...and it was.

You sit at communal tables, so I got to practice my five words of Italian on a few suited up gentlemen.

I informed the waitress that this was my last meal in Italy, and I wanted it to be special. Bring me the most interesting, very Milanese dishes the chef has!

She brought out linguine with pesto (fresh, bright pesto made with veggies...tasted like celery in a good way), roasted chicken and mashed potatoes. Not exactly the super exciting, original meal I was expecting, but it was very tasty. It felt like homecooking. Plus, all the men around me were eating basically the same thing, so I guess that´s a good sign too.

Sadly though, I brought leftovers with me on the plane to Barcelona, and someone at the hostel ate them out of our shared fridge the next day.

When I thought I lost my iPod in Greece, I didn´t even care. No worries! But this...stealing someone´s food? So unacceptable. Who does that?! There goes the yogic cool I took all these months to harness.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

But That's Because You Don't Have a Prada Backpack

On the way to Milan in the mid of the night, I had a 2 hour layover at the Pisa train station at around 1:30 a.m. Not an ideal time to be visiting a new city.

I found a cozy spot on a bench alongside the tracks to rest and try not to fall asleep. There was a wall behind me that did a pretty good job blocking the wind, so I was happy. I should probably paint this picture a little better and explain that it was about 40something degrees, and the warmest thing I packed was a little zip up jacket and a scarf.

Luckily, I had the Swiss Air blanket I stole from my plane ride from the States. I cuddled up against the wall with my backpack and wrapped the blanket around me. Not so bad.

I looked over and noticed there was one other person at the station. A homeless man sat directly across from me in an identical position...backpack and cheap blanket and all. The only exception was my black Prada bag I've been using as a carry on.

As a warning, this next part will only make sense if you've ever seen 10 Things I Hate About You. I imagined me and the homeless man playing out one of my favorite and most quotable scenes:

Me: "There's a difference between like and love. Because, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack."

Homeless Man: "But I love my Skechers."

Me: "But that's because you don't have a Prada backpack."

Florence Travel Notes

I left the farm a few days early to see Florence on my way out. Best decision ever.

The highlights:
1. First night was super rainy. Soggy feet didn't make for the best tourist experience, but Florence looks beautiful damp.

Had scoops of pistachio and nutella gelato. Why not dessert first? Then lasagna and half a bottle of chianti for dinner.

Explored the statues around the Uffizi gallery and Duomo. I must have walked by that cathedral a dozen times during my stay, but I was hit with an unexpected awe each time. It's gorgeous. I remember studying it in high school, but you just can't come close to appreciating this one without seeing it in person.

2. Went for a dip in the indoor pool and a sweat in the sauna and steam room plus a 1 euro glass of wine in the hostel. Weirdest hostel. Such extravagant amenities, right? Check out Plus Hostel if you're ever in the area or Venice, Rome and Prague too.

3. Second day started out with breakfast in bed of bread, chestnut butter, plum jam (all from my former home on the farm). Roamed the Academia Gallery where Michelangelo's David is. Incredible exhibit "Perfection in Form" with side by side comparisons of Robert Mapplethorpe's work with the master's. He worked a lot with the first female body building champion Lisa Lyons back in the 80s. It was funny seeing parents' reactions to all these giant photos of naked men next to the Renaissance statues. I guess I could see why they'd be shocked by all the bare ass, but shouldn't the 3D version be worse?

4. Lunch at a little restaurant that's just a window off a side street between the Duomo and Uffizi Gallery called I Fratellini. Famous for tasty, simple 2.5 euro sandwiches. Had a roasted ham sandwich (prosciutto arrosto) with truffle cream (crema tartufata). Mmmmmm.

5. Walked through the Ponte Vechio across the Arno river to see the Pitti Palace and then basically got lost in some parks and a residential area for about 2 hours. It was a good kind of lost though as it was still daylight, and Florence always has something pretty to look at.

6. Walked up a little climb to the Piazza Michelangelo to have a romantic dinner of 2 euro pizza and watch the sun set on Firenze. Lovely panoramic view of the whole city and all the sights I didn't have time to see up close. Full moon and the city street lamps cast a beautiful reflection on the river Arno. Molto bella! I'll have to return one day.

7. Went for a coffee, hot chocolate and some pastries with a new single serving friend from the hostel. The hot cocoa was like liquid pudding.

8. Back to the hostel to watch a random fireworks show from the rooftop terrace. Another day, another bottle of wine. It's almost as cheap as water here, so it seems like the frugal thing to do. Aaahhh, Firenze.

9. Day three consisted mostly of absorbing some of the best art in the world at the Uffizi Gallery...or at least many of my favorites. There were a lot of the big name masters and paintings, but my favorites were the Caravaggios they had and Boticelli's Annunciation.

I hijacked a few tours and learned some fun new things. For instance, did you know that in addition to the renaissance women's desire to look pale (to avoid looking like poor, sunbathed farmers...much as I do now), they also shaved or plucked their hairlines to enlarge their foreheads? It was supposed to make them look smarter.

I was so overwhelmed, I had to break the museum up into two trips in one day -- about a total of 6 or 7 hours.

10. Lunch again at I Fratellini with the hostel bud. Arugula and pecorini tartufo sandwich and a goat cheese,
fennel, salami.

11. Lots of walking around in more rain. More cheap pizza for dinner. More wine...

12. Best gelato I've encountered so far at Festival of Gelato. I think they have over 70 kinds! I went with rose and chocolate with chili pepper.

13. Caught the midnight train to Milan, which really meant to Pisa, then Genova and then Milan by 9 a.m. the next morning. I'll do anything to save 20 euros on a hostel these days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Look Back at the Farm

My time on the farm was an intense period of reflection. More of a lesson in spirituality than agriculture.

It's not at all what I expected, but I don't think life can prepare you for the phenomena and personalities I witnessed there.

I don't own words to describe what that place was like and the things that I saw. I haven't fully digested it all yet and not sure I ever will. Ask me for details the next time I see you in person. It's a story worth trying to get out of me.

I used to think I was open minded, but my time in the community and with my fellow WWOOFERs has put a giant crack in a wall I never realized existed in my head.

I'll take with me a belly full of pasta, a new appreciation for good olive oil, a bag full of tasty preserves (a goodbye gift from the farmers) and the ability for complete acceptance...even when it comes to the completely unexpected.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Your Mark, Get Set, Andiamo!

Woke up this morning at 5:50 to catch the first bus off the farm. It's about a 20 min walk to the bus stop.

Pouring rain. Pitch black dark...not too many lights on that early when you live on a farm in the hills of nowhere.

As I round a rocky bend up a hill and away from the farm, I realize I have exactly enough time to just barely make it. Speed walking. Flip flops. Giant backpack on a not so giant person.

Look down at my phone. I really don't have enough time to make it.


Chestnut shells all over the road. Ouch.

Rocky path turns to massive mudslide hill. We're talking thick, gooey mud.

I suddenly feel like I'm on the second leg of some kind of hippie farmer triathlon.

My flip flops aren't cooperating with the mud. My body feels like I'm running, but I'm barely moving. Just sticking and sliding in the mud. Panting in the rain.

Throw the flip flops off. Sprinting barefoot uphill in muddy, rocky darkness. Soggy, heavy bags. Gross.

I find relief for a moment as I splash through a big puddle and some of the sharp pebbles and twigs wash off the squishy coating of mud on the bottoms of my feet.

It starts to rain even harder.

I'm not even sure if I'm running in the right direction when I look up and see the bus stop just ahead....maybe 15 feet in front of me. I made it!

But then....oh...wait....there...goes...the bus.

Arms flailing in the middle of the narrow road, I scream "Stop! Para! Para! Per favore..."(I'm not even sure if that's proper Italian)

But it doesn't matter. It's too late.

I recently learned the Italian hand gesture for "fuck you!" so I put my fingers together in an angry mudra and shake it at the back of the bus as it speeds away.

And now for the last and most important leg of the hippie farmer triathlon: accepting defeat, doing it all over again, and heading back to the farm to wait for the next bus in two hours.

A true hippie yogi would have to see the light in this situation and know that this was somehow meant to be.

So I took a deep sigh, laughed and felt grateful that I could at least go back to wash the mud from my bare feet and enjoy a hot shower and leisurely breakfast with a nice cup of tea.

Plus, the second time around I got a ride to the bus stop.

A Day in The Life of a Farmer

I remember when I used to go back to BU to do career fairs and speak at meetings. PR students would always enthusiastically ask me, "What's a typical day like for you at a PR agency?"

And I would always enthusiastically answer, "Well, that's a tough question because no day is ever the same!"

But that's not really true. I pretty much just sat at a computer all day everyday sending emails. Sometimes writing press releases. Picking up the phone every now and then. Occasionally visiting a conference room or office.

That's about it.

If a student were to ask me what a typical day of work here is like, that would actually be a tough question. I came here to harvest olives with the farmers, which I've done my fair share of, but they also:

1. Harvest chestnuts (have you ever seen any right off the tree? They're like little balls of porcupines you have to pry apart with gloves that are way too big for you. Ouch.)

2. Make chestnut butter (also available with apple and rum)

3. Make all kinds of preserves (cherry, strawberry, citrus, tomato, apple, plum, mint, etc.)

4. Feed chickens

5. Move rocks and/or dirt (I did tons of this...ended up with bruises all over my hips. An important lesson: don't carry a rock like you would a baby)

6. Clear and build drainage channels

7. Transplant carrots

8. Forage for mushrooms

9. Pick flowers (including saffron!)

10. Eat fruit you randomly stumble across even though you're supposed to be doing farming chores (including persimmons, pomegranates, rosehips, pears, strawberries)

11. Bulldoze things and light fires

All of these I have either done or witnessed during my short stay here.

I honestly still can't say whether I'd prefer life in a cube or on a farm though. My hands and back are probably equally tired...just in different ways. There are still opportunities for creativity and strategic problem solving skills...again, in very different ways.

But it would be hard to give up the two-hour lunches. How could I go back to 15-minutes eating at my desk?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Genoa and My New Foodie Friend

The other day a new WWOOFer arrived on the farm. Julia is a German Jewish Brazilian student at the Culinary Institute of America.

We talk food constantly.

It's fantastic.

We decided to sync our days off together, so we could take a day trip to Genova (or Genoa in English) and enjoy a fabulous lunch and Ligurian sights.

How you fill eight hours in Genova as two hungry tourist girls:

1. Stopped by a little bakery for a croissant filled with cream. Hint of orange. Walking breakfast: cathedrals, palazzos, port.

2. Aquario di Genova: The largest aquarium in Italy. My favorite was the room full of tanks with different types of jellyfish. Felt like a beautiful dream.

Also sharks, crocodiles, dolphins, manatees, chameleons, seahorses, octopuses, turtles, sea urchins, all kinds of colorful, glowing fish, and much more. They even had a Finding Nemo tank filled with most of the cast. Adorable!

Plus a 3D movie called the World of Sharks, which was narrated by an insanely romantic, sexy-voiced Italian man pretending to be a turtle.

3. After all that fish ogling, we were very hungry for some seafood.

Julia's Vino Italiano book (by Mario Batali, David Lynch, Joseph and Lidia Bastanich) and the Lonely Planet guidebook both recommended that we make a stop at a Genovese restaurant and wine shop called Enoteca Sola.

It was a tiny place with only about five other tables, which were all middle-aged Italian men eating alone.

We started with antipasto delle "cose buone dell'enoteca" (which means the good things of the house). Lived up to its name with a delicious assortment of potato salad, anchovy with tomato and some kind of greens, fried artichoke, prosciutto and a spinach frittata.

For our entrees we had rotondino di sitello tonnato insalatina (rolled beef thing with spinach and pinenuts) and frittura di occiugle e calamaretti freschi (fried squid and anchovy with raddichio and tomato salad).

And of course I wouldn't be a Cheng and she wouldn't be a culinary student without a few glasses of vino.

For the fried seafood, we had the Vermentino-Imperia-Vigna U Munte Colle dei Bardellini 08. It's well known in this area for its slightly salty finish, which comes from the seaside air by the Ligurian vineyards...or so say Julia and her wine books.

For the beef dish, we had a Rossese Dolceacqua Riserva- E. Guglielmi 06, which is a big grape varietal from Liguria too. Light. Sweet. Fruity. Pleasant.

Finished off with a plate full of freebie cookies and four types of chocolates. We ate half and stuffed the rest in our pockets.

4. Despite having our fill at lunch, we shopped for a lot of chocolate all day. I'll be living off a bag of mini Kinder eggs for the next few weeks.

5. Caffe Balilla and Gelateria. A week and a half in Italy, and this was my first taste of gelato! I ordered a scoop of panera (I thought this would have something to do with bread, but the gelato lady explained it was just coffee...I still don't get it) and another of crema whisky. Basically Irish coffee in gelato form! An inspired choice if I do say so myself.

6. Mercato Orientale. Maze of stalls with fruits, veggies, nuts, meat, cheese, seafood, flowers. Such beautiful produce!