Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An evening by the fire in my slippers

Hotel Salama, Tafraout
It can rain here too and it certainly is right now. The country side around here is mostly bare granite, so when it rains heavily it comes streaming down the mountains. Dry stream beds and roads turn into gushing rivers in minutes. We are on day four of some really rainy weather but fortunately there are periods each day when we can get out for a walk. I really can't complain, we have been chasing the good weather with great success for more than three months.

Not only is Tafraout known for it's mountain trekking and beautiful rock formations, but it is also home to a number of babouche makers. Whether you consider them slippers or shoes they are ubiquitous around here. The local variety are more sturdy than the whimsical fairy slippers you see in some of the souks. This morning we headed out for some good babouche shopping. Matthew bought a pair for Gord as a Christmas present. Once I tried them on I needed a pair as well. We went with the local traditions of yellow for boys and red for girls. Now as I sit in front of the fire in our hotel I am cosy from the top of my head right down to the tip of my toes.

Location:Tafraout, Morocco

Monday, November 29, 2010

Public Transport Part Two

On Route between Tarudant and Tafraout

Ok forget everything I said before. I spoke too soon. Right now I want to be traveling in one of those land rovers. I HATE BUSES! We got up at 5:30 to catch a early bus only to sit on it for two hours with no sign of it ever departing. At 8:30 I was going to go postal. People on the bus were starting to get off for washroom breaks from a ride that so far hadn't gone anywhere! Finally I convinced Gord and Matthew to bail with me, we were able to even recover our money.

Now we are settled into a grand taxi that will take us all the way to Tafraout. For this service we are paying a small fortune, but this way no one gets hurt.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Public Transport

When we head off in the mornings on our travel days we never know exactly how it will work out. Buses, especially the modern comfortable ones leave early in the morning and are often full. Most trips involve an assortment of grand taxis, mini buses and larger coaches. Whatever the combination a distance of 300km will take a good chunk of the day.

Although travel days are usually tiring, they are also a fun way to really be with Moroccans(sometimes much closer than you expect). In the week around Aid things were really busy. I quickly discovered that good orderly Canadian queuing is non existent here. Also, buying a ticket for a 5 hour coach ride doesn't mean there will be available seats until you pay the suspect " baggage fee" and they turf others off the bus. On one ride I ended up sitting much further up in the bus than Matthew and Gord. I was quickly adopted by the surrounding woman who shared their food with me and made sure I was sitting with one of them as passengers shifted throughout the ride. In return, I shared my lap for their sleeping toddlers because we all know a toddler who sleeps is a marvelous thing on a long journey.

Today our journey so far has involved two grand taxi rides because the morning bus to Taroudent was already full. We splurged and bought the whole backseat of the Mercedes. I am not willing to spend three hours with four or five crammed in. It has been a beautiful drive along the foot hills of the Atlas. We are making much better progress than the buses which stop for tea and passengers all the way along. The current taxis' odometer reads 817,430km - impressive.

Now we are waiting in a town called Taliouine, a town the book warns is sometimes hard to get out of. Once installed in our third grand taxi of the day we pull out of another back water town; indistinguishable from many others whether you are in India, Cuba, Turkey or Guatemala. The one thing that the bus stations or taxi stands in all of these towns share, however, is some of the best people watching around! In spite of the time and some of the discomfort I think the majority of foreigners who wiz by in Land Rovers might be missing a big part of Morocco.

Location:On the Road

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ait Ben Haddou

Now we know where all the tourists are, we certainly haven't seen many anywhere else. They do however, have good reason to come here. It is considered the prettiest and most heavily ornamented of the Ksour and UNESCO agrees. While it is stunning, we prefer the more authentic Berber Ksour in other areas.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tea with carpets

We were not going to buy carpets. "No really, it's too early on the trip and they are too heavy to carry," I said as I slipped a wad of bills into my purse; well you never know. Ok so it turns out we are push-overs. Going to have tea, "and just for looking at carpets", is harder than you think. Especially when the gentleman and his sister are lovely and welcoming and show you eye poppingly beautiful carpets.

Carpet shopping is a long drawn out process. We started with a tour of their mud brick kasbah that is over one hundred years old. Then we were shown the looms and wools died with natural ingredients like henna, saffron, pomegranate, mint and indigo. Next came the explanation of all the Berber symbols. We are then invited into their main room and tea was prepared and poured. By this time we are no longer customer and seller, but friends. Mahjoub and his sister gradually begin to unfurl a number of beautiful carpets. About twenty minutes into it we know we are hooked. In Berber culture negotiating prices comes last and after the item has been chosen. For this delicate conversation another pot of tea is brewed and the quality of the carpets discussed further. In our case, his first price seemed so reasonable that we just went through the motions to carve a bit off of the price. Gord and I bought one for ourselves and Matthew got his as an early Christmas present. After the two carpets were sewn up into packages Mahjoub, gave Matthew another small carpet, because he was just so gosh darn cute (or because we paid such a high price). In the end, however, all parties were very happy with the exchange and it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

Location:Todra Gorge

Tea with the Nomads

We have been having a lovely stay In Todra Gorge. The hiking here is great and varied. Yesterday Gord and I hiked down through the lush palmeries of the Gorge to Tinerhir. It took us 3.5 hours zigzagging through the oasis between the steep cliff walls and mud villages. It was the first time in months I could walk that distance without difficulty.

Today Matthew, Gord and I climbed up about 2000 feet through the desolate rocky mountains above the gorge. On our way down we encountered a camp of a nomadic Berber family. We had met their goats earlier on the trail. The mother unfurled blankets and invited us to join her for some tea, dates and camp fire bread. All of this was done without any common language. She gracefully accepted my fleece and a bit of money for the lunch and then through gestures she invited us to stay the night. We declined, but it was a very special experience spending some time with her. After lunch we made our slow decent back to the lush gorge floor; such a great contrast to the barren mountains. We were walking for almost five hours and for the first time in a long time I felt strong.

Location:Todra Gorge

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Todra Gorge

Dar Ayour, 13km from Tinghir

Ok so maybe all those yummy salads at the street vendors were not a good idea. The Rough Guide for Morocco warns that everyone at some point gets sick and it has always been a trusted reference. Gord was first out of the gate and now Matthew and I are staying very close to washroom facilities. We couldn't have picked a nicer place to relax and get over something. Our room is beautiful with our own verandah/tea lounge over looking the river and cliffs. This place is a lush oasis after the Sahara.

Gord is in his element with the hiking around here. Today he headed up the Gorge twenty kilometers to the next town and then caught a cab back. He was number nine in a standard Mercedes station wagon and had to be let out before our village, presumably so that the authorities didn't see how overloaded the vehicle was.

Location:Todra Gorge

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Full Moon in The Desert

When you come to Morocco you have to spend at least one night in the desert. Camel treks are touristy, but they are popular for good reason. The dunes here range in color from golden orange to pink and near sunset the views are out of this world. We can see a ridge of cliffs just across the Algerian border from here.

Up close, camels are really odd animals. Their knees and ankles bend in the opposite direction as ours and their heads swivel about like an ostrich. After getting too friendly with one of them he barred his teeth and startled me so much that I fell backwards into the sand.

Our camp was an hour and a half camel ride away and we made it there by sunset. Our guide Omar served us tea and then started to prepare dinner by the light of one candle and his cell phone. It was one of the best tangines we have had in Morocco. We were joined by two very friendly desert cats who were equally impressed by the tangine. We have now witnessed first hand how cats chose to domesticate themselves by moving closer into inhabited camps. After a good night sleep in the moonlit desert, we woke up at dawn to watch the sunrise before mounting our camels and heading back to the hotel. We will spend one more night here and then head back into the mountains.

Location:Erg Chebbi

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Into the Kasbahs

We caught a ride with Melissa, an American woman we met in Fes who was picking up a rental car and heading in our direction. It was a great day and much more fun than a 5 hour bus ride.
After stopping in Azrou for a quick lunch we drove up into the Cedar forests in search of the Barbary monkeys. Melissa had some information on where they could be spotted so we parked the car and strolled among the huge Cedars with our eyes peeled. Here we thought we were on a wilderness quest and just 200m up the road was a parking lot surrounded by tourist stands and lots of well fed monkeys. As touristy as it was the macaques were beautiful. They were tame enough that we could get up really close to watch their communal grooming sessions.

We are now well into the Middle Atlas and are beginning to see mud houses and Kasbahs. The light at sunset and sunrise is just fantastic.
We have many friends here. Two men both named Rashid attached themselves to us for a while. Rashid number 1 joined us on our walk and led us through the old Jewish Kasbah in town. It is still inhabited but the last Jew died five years ago. The mud and straw construction can become a deadly situation when heavy rain storms periodically collapse the buildings. Apparently last year 20 people died when several homes collapsed. The king donated money to rebuild the Kasbah, but I think I would be looking for a concrete or brick alternative .

You can't imagine our surprise to discover that both Rachids had carpet shops and were very eager to offer us a Berber welcome and mint tea there. I am afraid we were a disappointment on that front.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Time with the Women

November 16, 2010
I want to spend time with Moroccan woman, but not as myself. Undercover, perhaps I could gain some sense of what life is like for woman here. The only way in for me right now is through books. I am reading, Dreams of Trespass, by Fatima Mernissi. Born in 1940, the book is Fatima's story of growing up in a Harem in Fes. I am just into the first third of the book, but already the multi-generation discussions of boundaries and liberation are fascinating.

After lunch Gord and Matthew went out to walk the city walls and I went to the local hammam.
In Turkey I went to a hammam, but it was in a tourist town and I was the only customer. This was completely different. It was a full of women of all ages shapes and sizes. No French or English was spoken but hand gestures made it easy to figure out what to do. It's interesting that although in public spaces women are extremely well covered and modest in the hammam, everyone is either naked or in underwear. I can waltz around in public in a tank top and shorts, but put me in a crowded hammam with a woman polishing my skin until it glows and I am the shy one. Interesting.

I don't think a woman born in Canada who visits Morocco as a tourist can make any claims of understanding the complex gender relations here but I will continue to visit hamams and read my book so that at least I get some clues.
Location:Fes, Morocco

Monday, November 15, 2010


I eat meat, so why am I squeamish about Aid and the sacrificing of sheep all over Fes today. It was one thing to get used to walking to our hotel through the meat souk where camel and sheep heads hang on hooks to indicated both the type of meat sold at a particular shop, and it's freshness. Matthew and I both had to try to banish those images from are minds before we could dig into our kebab dinners.
Now this morning we have been listening to the last bleats of hundreds of sheep as they are individually slaughtered with their heads turned to Mecca. Singing horse riders crash through the narrow lanes some already proudly wearing white robes drenched in blood.

One sheep on our neighboring rooftop became quite quiet after fewer and fewer of his bleats were answered. Oh dear, I am back on the roof and he is very dead now. Families are gathered on all the surrounding roofs taking photos and preparing for their feast. The sky is smokey as fires are lit to roast the meat.

For Moroccans today is a celebration, and everyone, even the poor, will eat meat tonight.
An important part of Aid is giving mutton to those who need it. Red meat is relatively expensive here and for some, they will only be able to eat Mutton twice a year.

I eat meat so why do I prefer my lamb to come from an industrial meat processing plant where they never see a pasture and live only a few months to then be wrapped in cellophane sent across the world for my inspection. No heads or eyes looking down at me to indicate how long that leg of lamb has been sitting in the supermarket. It certainly is less messy for me and easier to pretend it never came from a live creature. Call me old school but that is just how I prefer it.
Location:Fes, Morocco

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Souks in Fes

Dar Bouãnania, Fes

After a grand taxi ride to Meknes, and a petite taxi ride to the train station, we boarded an over stuffed train to Fes. Everyone is heading home for Aid right now and each car was just jammed. We could barely wedge ourselves into our car and then to our horror we stopped at two more stations to collect a few more passengers. Fortunately it was a short ride and we made it to Fes before noon.

We are staying in a fantastic Dar right in the old Medina. My understanding of the difference between a Dar and a Riad is that a Dar has a small central room that is glassed in three stories above it, whereas a Riad has a larger open court yard. There are other differences of course like price and grandeur, but for $16 dollars each I am very happy with our Dar. Every surface is covered with decoration and color. We are planning to stay here for four nights so that we miss some of the travel chaos right around.

We went out for our first exploration of the Medina and it's fantastic. I was bracing myself for lots of touts and hassles but it was pretty relaxed. People, of course wanted to show us their shops, but they were quite gracious when we smiled and said no.

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Location:Fes, Morocco

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sheep in the House

It's not everyday you see someone pushing a couple of sheep into their house and up the stairs. If it wasn't just three days before Aid el Kabir I might have a few concerns. There are sheep everywhere right now. Hanging off donkeys, pushed into car trunks, and now it seems we have two on our Terrace.

If you can afford it, and you are Moroccan, now is the time to secure your own flossy for Aid.
Shopping for the right sheep is a national obsession at this time and it can be done in many different ways. Old world meets new now with Internet sheep sales on the rise. But the smart family who has put off the urge to replace the broken washing machine until now could score a sheep with the deal right before Aid.

Mohammed, our host assures us that the best place to purchase a sheep is in the local souk or market. Although currently our two terrace companions are being carefully fed and watched by Amet our host's youngest son, I fear it won't end well for them( the sheep that is.)

When we were not looking at sheep today we were touring the Roman Ruins of Volubilis. A remarkable site and well deserving of it's Unesco World Heritage designation.
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Location:Moulay Idriss

Friday, November 12, 2010

Up in the Sugar Cubes of Moulay Idriss

La Colombe Blanche, Moulay Idriss
I never made it to Santiago de Compostella but I have made it to Moulay Idriss. As I sit on our roof top terrace listening to the call to prayer, I feel a certain reverence for humanity and gratitude to be a part of it.
Moulay Idriss was founded by it's namesake, the most venerated Saint in Morocco and the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. A pilgrimage here is worth one fifth of the hajj to Mecca.
The town is built on two hills and piled high with sugar cube houses. We are staying with a lovely family in one of the cubes on the top of the pile. From here I can see the Roman ruins of Volubilis in the distance. Is is stunningly beautiful here. Gordon and Matthew went for a 20km walk up over a ridge overlooking the town. I am content just relaxing here.

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Hôtel Maroc, Meknes

Now we feel like we are really in Morocco. Meknes is a laid back but otherworldly place. We are staying in a little hotel in the Medina. Our room has a window looking out over a little court yard full of orange trees. We visited the museum set in a fabulous Riad with a stunning harem on the second floor. Who new the oppression of women could be so beautiful. We thought it would be a great setting for Matthew to entertain his future wives( he insisted on the plural).

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Casablanca, Hotel Guynemer

No this is not about a film shot entirely in a Hollywood studio, even though it was an excellent picture. And no we didn't go to Rick's bar even though there is one here now. I have however had the song, "As time goes by" going through my head since we arrived.

Our first day in Morocco was spent marveling at the new Hassan II Mosque and grieving about the state of some of the crumbling yet once exquisite Art Deco buildings. We had stunning light to view the Mosque by. The rain had just quit and was replaced by sun and fog- very atmospheric! The Mosque was finished in 1993 after just 6 years with 2500 workers and 10,000 craftsmen. It's a great combination of traditional craftsmanship and modern innovations like the ornately carved cedar ceiling that opens in good weather to cool the worshippers. It was spectacular!

The Deco heritage of this city is also outstanding, but badly in need of restoration, power washing and gallons of white paint. The details on so many of the buildings, including our hotel, recall an era when this city must have been a jewel. I think with some money and elbow grease it could certainly shine again.

Matthew and Gord are having a fabulous time encouraging each other to lower the bar to twelve year old humor standards whenever possible. Out of kindness to anyone reading this I won't provide any examples, (sorry Blair). We are having a great time together, although there are moments when I think I am suddenly back in a classroom with two goofs. Fortunately they do still transform back into their lovely selves who cook for me and do all the dishes.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sipping Chocolate and Coffee in Madrid

If you love art and chocolate then Madrid is the city you want to visit. The combination of the two is perfect, because when you max out on the art you can recharge with a coffee or a steaming cup of thick chocolate.

We are really lucky with our timing in Madrid because the Prado has Renoir and Rubens exhibitions on right now. Both are outstanding and then of course there is all the other art in the permanent collection. I will never tire of seeing their Heronimous Bosch collection.

Last night we picked up our nephew Matthew at the airport and today we are taking him around to see some Madrid highlights including the flea market, Sol, Plaza Major and of course lots of art. He doesn't seem to be too jet lagged or else he's too polite to complain.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Canned by Renfe

November 6, 2010

We took the night train to Madrid. We opted for the cheaper bed in a room of six. This means that six people are stacked three deep and two wide in a six foot by eight foot room. There is not enough room to sit up on any of the bunks. I was on the third level accessed by a scary ladder that angled into the room. Of course I had to go pea which involved wriggling down the ladder without falling on any of the others below. On my return I somehow got my self wedged in the wrong direction and didn't have enough room to lie down. After a logistical analysis I grabbed the pole and swung my head out enough so that I could clear the ceiling and lie back down. Amazingly, I slept well and was in fine shape this morning.

Now we are settled into our nice Madrid apartment and looking forward to seeing Matthew this evening.

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Friday, November 5, 2010


Hostal Forum, Taragona

Ok life is pretty grand here in Taragona. My back is feeling good I'm relaxing drinking Rioja wine after a swim in the ocean. It's not a complete surprise to come to a Spanish city I've never hear of, on the coast and find lovely beaches. We had not expected, however, to encounter a city full of Roman and Medieval ruins. The Roman sights are significant enough to warrant Unesco heritage status. Taragon was a important Roman Provincial town during the Punic Wars in second century B.C. But for those who don't care so much for ruins or beaches there are numerous cosy cafes where you can pass the time sipping rich, thick chocolate heaven.

Tonight we take the night train to Madrid. Tomorrow we meet up with our Nephew Matthew for the next chapter of our trip.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

A letter from our cat

Just received a heart-warming letter from our cat. Thought I would share it with everyone.

asedfjgksdjfgoiclepgmdflejrgojavlma;jkgjgoerlew[reofdgmfheirhuth...htuR iH oops, I mean Hi Ruth,
This whole typing thing is hard. Don's asleep at the key board so I thought I would take over, otherwise you will probably never get a response from the lazy sleeping bugger. Don't get me wrong, he treats me well, but there just seems to be something missing, where is the love I say. When are you and Gord coming home? I miss the communal bed, playing with Gord at 4:00 a.m., and having him get up in the middle of the night, just for me! Don, well he leaves the window open, although he locked me in on Halloween night, silly bugger... something about saving his testicles from the next canning season if he didn't - I really don't get his oblique references sometimes. I am getting very good at getting up that cat ladder though, on the weekend I impressed Don by leaping from the second step from the top, up to the start of the ladder, and then 3 more leaps up the ladder and in through the window without even touching the window ledge. As you can see from my picture above, there's nothing I like more on a sunny morning than just making myself comfortable on the window ledge while surveying the world.
Well so much for Obama-mania hey, I think if he just kept a presidential cat around his approval ratings would soar. What's with always picking a dog, it didn't help 'Tricky Dick' much, and frankly a dog just appeals to a bunch of white trash voters, they're voting Republican anyway. I say look to where you can capture new untapped voter appeal, the cat lovers, they're the ones not voting, bring them on board. It could even be a budget stimulus item, you know: let's make America rat free, get a cat. They could count cats as family dependants and offer up a family cat tax benefit; America could become the worlds leading cat food producer... jobs,jobs,jobs!
Speaking of getting rid of rats in politics, did you read that our man Gordo resigned. Yep, it's official he bid a tearful farewell at a press conference today, it was a bit of a surprise. He really did make people believe he was going to stay on and fight, even with a personal approval rating of 9%. I mean it was only a few days ago he announced to the province a 15% personal income tax cut, instituted a cabinet shuffle, and sacked Martyn Brown, I really think he was planning on staying on. His press conference seemed hastily organised, quite comical really, the door opened and he almost looked like he was pushed through the door out in front of the cameras, no aids around him, nothing, just stumbling a little toward the podium. His speech had the sound of reading the words with a gun to his head. Turns out there was a secret ballot on leadership review cast by members from across the province, they were going to release the results at the next convention which is in a couple of weeks, hmm do you think he was given a sneak preview of those results?

Hey I see you cats are now into Spain, and looking to sell or give away your bikes ... ya, I follow your blog. Maybe you can trade your bikes for a stay at one of those fancy B & Bs you are staying at. Hey you're not petting any of those foreign cats are you? Stay away from them, you hear, they're just slutty flea bags, carrying all sorts of vermin. Why I wouldn't be surprised if they don't carry bed bugs! Don't touch them you hear?!?

I've got to go now, Don's starting to drool on me, why doesn't he just go to bed?


P.S. When the spell checker checked the email it didn't recognise Obama, instead it suggested Osama, wonderful!

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teatre-Museu Dali Figueres

Well last night we sold both bikes to the first woman I asked in Cadaques. Well, sold is an over statement, let's just say the purchasers were very happy with the deal. Our next stop was the post office where we mailed about seven kilos of bike gear maps and books to our apartment in Barcelona. That sounded good, let me say it again, our apartment in Barcelona. With a much better back and a much lighter pack we jumped on a bus to Figueres.

Now we are sitting outside Dali's theatre after about two hours of exploring it, recharging with an expresso before heading back in. It is a comprehensive exposure to his multiple faceted artistic vision. Speaking of facets.... No enough about my back!

I could make a comment about the weather, but that would be cruel. Let's just say it's a bit like Victoria in July.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dali's House

Salvador Dali lived the bulk of his adult life in a house on the sea just outside Cadaques. The house was originally a number of fishing huts which Dali and his wife Gala transformed into surreal splendor. While there were few of his paintings on exhibit the collections of decorations, installations and taxidermist animals in odd arrangements was fascinating.
Oh if the walls could talk I bet the parties were otherworldly!

It looks like I may have sold one of our bikes! Hopefully we can find another buyer for the other one.
Sent from my pea pod.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bikes for Sale

Portbou to Cadaques 30km with at least 3 Malahats!

Ok today was a brutal but stunningly beautiful. We are now in Dali's back yard and we hope to visit his house tomorrow. Cadaques is a lovely fishing village that has exploded into an art colony turned resort.

So now we are ready to sell the bikes. So if there is anyone out there who wants a good deal come to Cadaques and they are yours! I have no idea how we will do this, I don't even speak Spanish and Gord doesn't have the seller's chutzpah to do it either. Wish us luck we need it. It doesn't really matter if we can't sell them we will just give them away.

Location:Avinguda de Caritat Serinyana,Cadaqués,Spain