Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Weekend in Marrakech

Morocco is a surprisingly easy jaunt from London. Just 4 hours and you don't even have to fiddle with your watch -- same time zone. So in continuance of our program of meandering around the Arab world while revolution is afoot, Pam, Simone and I took advantage of the winter-break weekend and visited Marrakech.

Local opinion on the unfolding situation in Egypt was varied: different perspectives were proffered by young vs. old, male vs. female, level of education, etc.: just like politics anywhere. But everyone was definitely paying attention -- you almost had to tear the shopkeepers away from the Al Jazeera broadcast in order to conduct business.

It turned out that we were in Marrakech the night that Mubarak stepped down. This was received with general jubilation. But alas the excitement spilled over into some gang violence that we were unfortunate to witness while walking home from dinner. No guns, just fists; some blood though. Despite the pall this encounter cast over the evening, our visit was otherwise without incident.

The walled-in core of the city, the Medina, is a crazily convoluted network of ancient streets and souks. During their brief period of colonization the French eschewed the old city and chose to build anew, outside the walls. A fortunate decision, leaving intact a marvelous labyrinth of medievalism. Wandering the passageways you feel transported in time, yet it is behind closed doors that you find the true delights: inventive modern extrapolations of the indigenous design and color.

Here Simone lounges at the Cafe Arabe, a hip hangout overlooking the souks:

This is the beautifully rendered islamic courtyard of the legendary Mamounia Hotel:

Our somewhat more modest accommodation was a renovated Riad -- a traditional Moroccan home with inner courtyard. Well-located with a vibrant food market just outside the door, and decorated with a very refined (i.e. Pam-worthy) sense of style:

The dining room at the Riad Kniza:

And beyond these modern interpretations, a true highlight was a visit to the Madrasa Ben Youssef, an islamic college built in the 16th century.

The inner courtyard:

A scholar's "cell", with desk and other implements:

Detail of the central courtyard's elaborate bas-relief calligraphy and zellige tile-work:

Just outside the Medina wall is the Jardin Majorelle, later acquired and tended by Yves Saint Laurent. Complete with a succulent landscape rivaling Santa Barbara's Lotusland:

Typical street within the Medina:

Donkey caravans apparently replacing the camel caravans of old...a concession to modern times?

We shopped for ingredients with our cook, who later instructed us in making pastilla:

After lunch it was time to do some serious shopping. We strategically disguised ourselves for better bargaining power. As you can see, this shopkeeper was completely taken:

Sampling the goods:

Antique dealers Mustafa and Abdullah, my new best friends (post-transaction):

On our last day we took a brief excursion into the Atlas mountains, just 50 km from Marrakech. Beautiful and geographically similar to the Eastern Sierra, but with the added interest of Berber villages.

-- fin Maroc --

Monday, February 7, 2011


With the unrest in Tunisia having spread to Egypt, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would be the next to fall. Coinciding with the mid-winter lull, we perceived an optimal time to visit the Kingdom...no crowds!

So Pam and I flew to Amman with a group from London, soon finding ourselves in a jeep heading out to Wadi Rum – one of T.E. Lawrence's favorite slices of desert, located on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The landforms are magnificent, the sand is an intense red, and the only inhabitants then and now are Bedouin nomads.

Being February, the temperature was cool-ish – actually very comfortable. We had a chance to climb some of the rock outcroppings. Here yours truly crosses a natural bridge:

Before long we spotted an accomodating beast of burden:

I was too busy wrestling the monster to the ground to take any photos of that action, but suffice it to say, Pam soon had her saddled-up:

We 'camped' in the desert that night – it was incredibly peaceful and fun to hang out with a small number of fellow travelers and local Bedouins.

Later, we followed the path of Indiana Jones (and innumerable camel caravans before him) to Petra. Walking through a narrow slit canyon or "siq" for 2.5 miles, we suddenly arrived at the fantastic "Treasury":

Carved in-situ, from the solid sandstone somewhere between 100-200 B.C., it truly is one of the most fantastic sights in the world. Just incredible that the Nabataeans were able to create it with the most primitive tools while achieving such perfect symmetry and detail. The contrast with the curvy, natural forms of the unadulterated sandstone is sublime.

We dismounted our trusty ride...

... and went forth on foot along the formerly colonnaded main street of Petra, studded with relics from Roman and Byzantine eras.

Interestingly Petra became lost to history before the dawn of Islam (622 A.D.) hence has no islamic buildings nor motifs. For more than one thousand years it was known only to the Bedouins who kept it a close secret. First discovery by the West was in the early 1800's, by an intrepid Swiss explorer who promoted himself as an indian muslim to obtain access.

We hiked up to "The Monastery", so-called as it briefly functioned in this role in byzantine times. (Though like the other magnificent facades in Petra, it was built as a Nabataean tomb.)

After all this excitement, we took a day off to 'chill' on the shores of the Dead Sea:

Doing what we do best, just frolicking happily!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Homage to the Brontë Sisters

Though it was the midst of winter, Pam determined it time to visit Yorkshire to pay homage to the illustrious Brontë sisters. Joining the other 11 ladies in her book club, we took the train north for two nights in the village of Haworth. Various competing accounts of the Brontë's suffering and genius were proffered by our leader and assorted guides. Much mediocre lamb pie and chips were consumed in debate of the various theories. Thoroughly over-informed, we found the best way to clear our heads was by hiking the moors, just as Emily, Charlotte and Anne did when in search of inspiration...

As Pam channeled the steely determination of Jane Eyre in the crisp morning...
...we surveyed the snow-dusted hardscrabble farms from the hanging moorlands:

Looking back, the forlorn village of Haworth, where Mum and all five Brontë girls would be stricken with 'consumption' (tuberculosis) predeceasing their minister father by decades. Also joined by their over-indulged, n'er-do-well brother Branwell, who did himself in with alcohol and opium, thus ending his reign as lord entertainment at The Black Bull (the village pub).

The church where father Patrick ministered, with well-populated village cemetery in the foreground, as seen from the parsonage where the family lived out their lives:

The countryside is traced by forlorn, beautifully built dry-stone walls from another era:

At last we reached our destination: the ruins of a farmhouse widely believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights:

Could it be Catherine and Heathcliff?

(Click on any image to enlarge.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We go to a "Ceilidh"

It was the idea of Simone's soccer coach, Mr. Fern, a lively and fun Scotsman, after having been duly impressed with by the soccer parents wild abandon at the nightclubs of Cairo during the girls' varsity tournament in Egypt: We should have a post-season follow-up in London, celebrating Robert Burns' birthday at a traditional "Ceilidh" (kay-lee), a scottish dance party.

So just 8 hours after my arrival at Heathrow, Pam was slipping on her highland plaid stockings (which were summarily vetoed by Simone). Soon we were on the Piccadilly line, headed for the appointed rendezvous at Hammersmith Town Hall. The public event was well-attended, with some 300(?) eager-to-party types, mostly in their 20's and 30's, most claiming some scottish heredity or affiliation. Quite a few of the men, including Mr. Fern and his friend from ASL were sporting kilts. To Pam's dismay, the many plaid stockings were on display by the lasses.

I would describe the event as "square dancing on steroids", with live band and a 'caller' walking us through each rowdy number. It started with a cafeteria-style dinner featuring Haggis (per Wikipedia "a traditional Scottish dish made from minced offal and oatmeal etc, boiled in the stomach of a sheep etc; traditionally served with neeps and tatties and accompanied with whisky"). Many of the men, who were mostly in their 20's and early 30's, were dressed in kilts. At one point the whole show was interrupted by a bagpiper, leading a processing with a plate crowned with a Haggis. Then one kilted gent stepped on stage to perform a recitation of Burns' Address to a Haggis (English translation below...note the pro forma insult of the French) in the most amazing, fully incomprehensible brogue. At the climax of the poem, he violently pierced the Haggis with a blade, and downed several shots of whiskey. Apparently this whole ritual is part of the traditional Burns Dinner, a favorite holiday in Scotland through which they celebrate their national bard.

We whirled and twirled, swilled beer and wine to chase down the Haggis (surprisingly tasty, IMHO), and had a thoroughly excellent time. Welcome home -- gotta love this place!

Good luck to you and your honest, plump face,
Great chieftain of the pudding race!
Above them all you take your place,
gut, stomach-lining, or intestine,
You're well worth a grace

as long as my arm.

The overloaded serving tray there you fill,
Your buttocks shaped like a distant hilltop,
Your wooden skewer could be used to fix a mill
if need be,
While through your pores your juices drip

like liquid gold.

His knife see the serving-man clean,
And then cut you up with great skill,
Making a trench in your bright, gushing guts
To form a ditch,
And then, 0h! What a glorious sight!

Warm, steaming, and rich!

Then, spoonful after spoonful, they eagerly eat,
The devil will get the last bit, on they go,
Until all their well-stretched stomachs, by-and-by,
are bent like drums,
Then the head of the family, about to burst,

murmurs “Thank the Lord".

Is there a pretentious soul who, over his French ragout,
Or Italian cuisine that would make a pig sick,
Or French stew that would make that same pig ill
with complete and utter disgust,
Looks down with a sneering, scornful attitude,

on such a meal? (as Haggis)

Poor devil! See him over his trash!
As feeble as a withered bullrush,
His skinny leg no thicker than a thin rope,
His fist the size of a nut,
Through a river or field to travel,

Completely unfit!

But look at the healthy, Haggis-fed person!
The trembling earth respects him as a man!
Put a knife in his fist,
He'll make it work!
And legs, and arms, and heads will come off,

Like the tops of thistle.

You Powers who look after mankind,
And dish out his bill of fare,
Old Scotland wants no watery, wimpy stuff
That splashes about in little wooden bowls!
But, if You will grant her a grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!