Suitcase and World: December 2011

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Before night falls. Marrakesh.

After we bid Aaron and Mildred goodbye, Soon and I plunged ourselves into the chaos of Djemma el Fna. The place was already loud and noisy.....full of activity.

We wound our way past the various street performers and dodged people and small vehicles along the way.

Neither one of us had eaten since breakfast and after a good day of walking, we were ready for at least a nibble. Time for a Djemma el Fna delicacy - grilled sheep's head. Yep, you read that right. Sheep's head.

 Wasn't hard finding a stall that sold them. You just had to look for the display :-) Of course, we got lured in my a waiter dressed in a white lab coat.

We sat ourselves down at the counter and tried to decipher the menu. Had no idea what to get but with the help of the waiter, we each settled for the combo which, if it means what we think it means, should get us a bit of this and a bit of that.  A sheep's head sampler :-)  Two Cokes to wash the meal down with.

The garden that Jacques built. Majorelle.

Iit's New Year's Eve today but more important than that, it's the start of our second full day in Marrakesh. This time Soon and I arrived into the dining room at the right time for breakfast; there were already other guests waiting for their food to arrive. Mustafa was shuffling in and out room, carrying trays of hot drinks and food.

Mustafa is very serious and focused about his job.  He never smiles or talks to the guests but in slightly odd way, he's adorable especially in his uniform with the white gloves and fez.  Makes him look very Moroccan. I've been wanting to sneak in a photo of him but there's not been the right time.

Hassan was also mingling in the room. I decided to take the opportunity and have him follow up with the local tour company regarding our trip tomorrow to Essaouira. I really had no idea how we were going to get there. I gave Hassan my voucher that had the local contact information on it and he tried to call the number. No answer. He kept trying. Still no answer.

In the meantime, our breakfast had arrived and Soon and I dived in. Even though I didn't have dinner last night, I wasn't that hungry. But as usual, I still managed to stuff my face and I'm counting that walking about the town will burn off all the extra calories.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Hop on, hop off. Marrakesh.

Bab Agnaou
I don't know what it is about being on vacation but when I'm away from my regular routine at home, I can get up at the crack of dawn without an alarm clock.  So, I was up bright early, well before 8am which is when breakfast is served in the dining room or at least that was the time that I thought Hassan told us that breakfast would be served.

Never mind what time breakfast was, I was eager to get started on the day.  I've been looking forward to being in Marrakesh for years and now it's finally happening!  So excited as always!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marhaban! Marrakesh.

Welcome to Marrakesh! Those were the words that Salah shouted out as he drove by the terracotta red walls that surround the medina.  It was just a few minutes earlier that we had been driving into the city.

It was evening rush hour when we arrived into Marrakesh and we inched along with the rest of the traffic.

Last night, I had pulled up the website of our riad, Amira Victoria, so that Salah could get driving directions on how to get us as close as he could to the place.  From reading all the reviews about the place, the two common comments were how nice it was and that it was very difficult to find.  I just hoped that Salah could drop us off at a place that we could ask for directions to get us there the rest of the way.  I told myself I would worry about that when the time came but in the meantime, I would enjoy the ride through the city.

The one and only Aït Benhaddou.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight of today was our visit to Aït Benhaddou ("eight-ben-ha-do"), a fortified village. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site; inscribed in 1987.

Flash back to the morning. I woke up bright and early and headed down for breakfast. It was brisk, cold morning in the Todra Gorge; the sun was shining brightly. The dining room was crowded with the tour group from the day before.  They must have been a hungry lot because there was barely any food left Soon and I found a table and  waited a few minutes for the waiter to replenish the buffet plates. We then got our food. There was not a whole lot to choose from but as always, we each managed to cobble a plate of food together.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Where Berber nomads call home.

Ihad no idea what time Salah was expecting to leave but I figured it wouldn't be too early. I had already packed up my stuff so it was just a matter of getting myself ready for the day. Soon and I were down in the dining room where there was a buffet breakfast that had been set up. Moroccan breakfast is definitely nothing fancy. Some bread, cheese, jam, olives and tea. I wasn't hungry but still ate a good breakfast as lunch tends to be a late day affair in this part of the world.

Aaron and Mildred eventually made their way down but one look at the breakfast offerings and they didn't look interested.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Into the heart of Morocco. Erfoud, Todra Gorge, and Tinerhir.

Tinerhir, Morocco
After hearing the sound of clapping hands outside my tent, I acknowledged I was awake by saying “yes”.  I was so comfortable in my bed/blanket combo that I lingered a bit longer. I could hear Soon rustling about on the other side of the partition. He too had heard the wake up call and was already preparing for the day.

Today, we had a long travel day in front of us and as always, I was excited to get going!

I eventually clamored out of my über comfortable bed and headed to use the bathroom. I had no idea what time it was but it was light outside though the sun had yet to rise. Last night, we had agreed, as a group, to get up before sunrise and ride the camels to a high point in the desert and watch the sunrise from there. Just as I am not a sunset person, I’m not a sunrise person either but I’m always willing to go with the flow.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Saharan Night. Erg Chebbi.

After Ifrane, we continued on our road trip towards the desert where we would be spending the night.   We had a long day's journey ahead of us.

I was excited and looking forward to seeing the sands of Sahara.  I've been to plenty of deserts but the Sahara is the grand daddy of them all and it's always been a dream of mine to see it.   I hope the other three enjoy the experience as well. :-)

A bit of Europe. Ifrane.

I sprung out of bed at 7:33am. Ack!! I was 3 minutes late in getting downstairs. Stupid me, I had set my alarm to go off at 6:15a but since I my Blackberry was still on DC time, the alarm would not go off until 11:15a Morocco time!

I jumped out of bed and scrambled to get dressed and cram what I needed to in my suitcase and backpack. I ran out of the room, grabbing a few items to bring down with me. As expected, the other three were already gathered around the coffee table eating breakfast. Their luggage was also all gathered and ready to go.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Fez.

Merry Christmas! We’re still in Fez. I hadn’t planned on anything for today which was just as well since poor Mildred is still nursing a very, very sore ankle. She’s been resting in bed since she got back to the riad yesterday afternoon.

Being a  Muslim nation, they don't celebrate Christmas here, it's a day like any other. For us though, I wanted a special memory of this day.  I had brought along stockings, filled with chocolates, for my three travel mates so I handed those out.  Of course, there were extra chocolates so I gave those to Ahmed with instructions for him to share with Sayeed and Sabah.  I hope he follows through.

Call to Prayer.

One unique experience when traveling to a Muslim country is hearing the daily adhan otherwise referred to in English as "the call to prayer".  Even though I was born and grew up, at least for a few years of my life, in a Muslim country, I never paid the adhan much attention until my recent travels.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ouch! Fez.

It’s Christmas Eve today and I awoke to an overcast day; our first since our arrival in Morocco.  Looking back, I should have taken that as a sign that today would not go smoothly.

Without the sun, it felt colder than it had previous mornings. Mildred was still lying asleep so I quietly snuck out and headed for the bathroom on the ground floor and took a quick shower. It was cold and the warm water felt so good that I didn’t want to get out but I have to leave some for the others or do I? ;-)

"Stuffing our faces.....again " Sabah and Sayeed had just arrived and were getting breakfast ready. I’m really curious what Moroccans usually have for breakfast because I’m not sure it’s the massive spread that they lay out for us each day. Look at it… ordinarily four human beings could eat all this. And with my Chinese upbringing where I’m suppose to eat everything put before me and not waste, I always feel a bit guilty leaving food behind. I hope that they take whatever is leftover and take it home for themselves. Food is something that we should all share.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Imperial Beauty. Meknes.

It wasn’t a long ride back from Moulay Idriss to Meknes. As we had agreed to when he picked us up, Kamal dropped us off in front of the Bab Mansour. After we all got out of the car, Kamal gave us a 20 second orientation tour – behind us was Bab Mansour and the entrance to the Moulay Ismail mosque and in front of us, the Place el Hedim.

A sleepy little town. Moulay Idriss.

Moulay Idriss is named after Idriss I who was the first ruler of the Idrissid Dynasty and is for all intents and purposes, considered to be the founder of Morocco. So, you would think that the town named after him would be anything but the assuming, sleepy place that it is.

From Volubilis, we piled back into Kamal’s Mercedes and made our way to Moulay Idriss. As agreed upon, Kamal took us along the scenic route which would its way from one mountainside to the next. More views of the town. Kamal did point out the town’s Bab.

Jackie Chan goes to ruins. Volubilis.

I woke to the sound of my alarm going off at 7:15a. No one had gone into the shower yet so I decided to be the first and enjoy warm water in case it ran out. I was dressed and downstairs by 8:00a. We had agreed to leave the house at 8:30a and were pretty much out the door then.

The first night that we were in Fez, Ahmed told us that the medina would be closed for a good part of the day as today is Friday. So we decided to do the day trip to Meknes and Volubilis today. No point staying in Fez when everything is closed.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exploring Fez.

Today was our first full day in Fez. Last night, Ahmed told us that breakfast starts at 9a but Sabah would hang around until whenever we were ready for breakfast. We were too eager to get started on the day so the night before, we decided we would be up by 8:30a.

"The day begins
The alarm on my Blackberry went off at 7:15a and I rolled around in bed until about 7:30a. We had turned the space heater on last night and the room was toasty warm. I had a nice down comforter on top of me. I would have loved to have stayed in bed longer but with only three bathrooms and four people, it could take a while to get everyone cleaned so I decided to make an early go of it. Besides, that might guarantee a better shot at hot water!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Destination Fez!

Today, I found out that the proper (i.e., Moroccan) way to spell the name of this ancient city is Fez and not Fes as I have been doing so I will now correct myself.

This morning, we begin our road trip through Morocco.  Before the day is over, we'll be in Fez.

Last night we agreed to meet in the lobby at 8am. The plan was to take the taxi to the Casa Voyageurs train station to catch the ONCF train to Fez.

Excited about going to Fez, I was up early and in the lobby by 7:30am. The other three made it down early as well. I took all our room key cards and headed up to the receptionist desk. I was ready for the fight that I knew would be coming my way.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A bit of new, a bit of old. Casablanca.

Soon and I agreed that whoever woke up first this morning would email the other.  By 11pm last night, I was ready to hit the sack. Though I had set the alarm to go off at 7am, I was up well before then. Even though my room was on the 15th floor, the sounds of the drivers honking their horns like mad woke me up before sunrise. A few minutes after I sent my email, Soon replied. He was up as well. We both needed to get ready for the day so I replied back to him to just come by and knock on my door when he was ready to go. He takes his time! I was in and out of the bathroom and finishing up on the blog post for yesterday before I heard the double tap on the door.

Monday, December 19, 2011

First taste of Morocco. Rabat.

We may have just arrived into Casablanca but there's no rest for the travel weary! The itinerary for the day was to do a trip to Rabat and so we headed back to the train station and bought two 2nd class tickets for 35 dirhams each. We had about 40 minutes to wait and again, headed outdoors.

The train pulled into the station on time and we clamored on board, found two seats and settled back. Rabat lies north of Casablanca so pretty much all along the way, the train was running alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Inland was arid desert landscape.

Up, up in the air. To Casablanca we fly.

Back at Terminal 1 in JFK, we decided to find where the check in counter was for Royal Air Maroc before heading down one flight to get our luggage. We found the counter and there was already a good long line of people waiting to get checked in. We decided that since we didn’t have an luggage to check in, that we would just go ahead and get our seating assignments and boarding passes. We made it to the counter quickly but surprisingly, the agent said she could not issue our boarding passes without seeing our carry on luggage. So, back to the luggage storage location we went and with luggage in hand, we headed back to the counter and got our boarding passes. Turns out, they have to weigh the carry on luggage. Mine was a teeny weeny overweight but the agent let me go anyway. Nice woman.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

And away we go! First stop. NYC!

I had come up with a grand plan for the day before I would leave for Morocco. I would try and go to bed at about 9pm and wake up at 3am. That way I would get at least 6 hours of sleep. But as usual, I was too excited to sleep. I kept waking up every hour or so. Not surprisingly, when the alarm went off at 3:15a, I was feeling tired. Instead of getting up, I cat napped till about 5:30a and then it was rush to get ready. For some reason, I always manage to find a bunch of little things to do in the last few minutes before I leave.
 "The Anxious Passenger"
SuperShuttle had called the day before and left a message telling me that the driver would be there to pick me up at 5:57a. I don’t know why they ever bother being so precise. But, lo and behold, the driver showed up at 6a. I was feeling good since my flight wasn’t leaving til 9:05a. I had told Soon that I would meet him at the airport at 7a. Luggage stowed in the back and me in the front passenger bench seat, we headed out of my neighborhood.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Marrakesh. مراكش

Bab Agnaou is one of the nineteen gates in Marrakesh.
It was built in the 12th century by the Almohads.
Ahhh.....Marraskesh. I think this the city that most people think of when they think of Morocco.  It is the city that evokes all the exotic images that people most often associated with Morocco

Marrakesh (or Marrakech), nicknamed the Ochre City because of the red Kasbah wall surrounding the medina, was founded in 1062.

The city has had a tumultuous history since its founding as a desert encampment.

Although it was the Almoravid leader, Abu Bakr ibn Umar who first designated Marrakesh as a regional capital city, it wasn't until his successor, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, came along that the desert encampment was transformed into medieval urban center, complete with stone buildings and a mosque.  The city had a style evocative of desert life, with planted palm trees and an oasis-like feel.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Casablanca. الدار البيضاء

Forever immortalized in the Hollywood classic of the same name, Casablanca is Morocco's largest city and its industrial and economic heart. It also boasts the world's largest artificial port but no ferry service of any kind.

The modern city of Casablanca was founded by Berber fishermen in the 10th century BC and was subsequently used by the Phoenicians, Romans, and the Merenids as a strategic port called Anfa.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Essaouira. الصويرة

Essaouira ("ess-ah-weer-ah") is a walled city located on the Atlantic coast.  Since New Year's Day is a holiday in Morocco and establishments in Marrakesh might be closed that day, I decided to sign us up for a day tour.....a long day tour, to Essaouira. I think it will be a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh.

Essaouira was settled by Phoenician and Carthaginian traders around the 7th century BC.  In Roman times, it became an important source Tyrian purple dye which is made from grinding up the shells of sea snails. It was the dye that was used to color the clothes of wealthy Roman emperors and aristocrats.

Friday, December 2, 2011

MAD man.

Soon holding up our stash of 100 and 200 dirham banknotes.  What a handful!
The dirham is the currency of Morocco.  Its ISO 4217 code is "MAD" and the common abbreviation is "dh".

The dirham is subdivided into 100 santimat (singular: santim). The currently used Moroccan coins are:

5 santimat (rarely used)
10 santimat
20 santimat
50 santimat
1 dirham
2 dirhams
5 dirhams
10 dirhams