Friday, 25 April 2014

Some Cool Shots Flying Into Peru

My plane flew into Peru right around sunset. The view out of the plane window was STUNNING. The Andes mountains were so close, I felt like I could reach out my hands and touch the swirling mist that hovered over them. I also think I saw the Amazon river (or at least a large winding river with many tributaries branching off of it). Dreams are being realized! I wish these photos could actually capture the magic and vividness of those few moments before landing...alas my iPhone snap shots will have to do!

Food Photos from Madrid

Just some food snap shots from around Madrid...

El Azul Cafe where I had my veggie burger:

Random little gourds:

Neighborhood cafe where I had coffee with all those men:

Mercado San Miguel:

Various ham shops: 

My neighborhood patisserie:


I never visited Spain, so when I had to fly through Madrid to get to Lima, Peru for my conference, I thought I might as well take a 24 hour layover to see a new city. I do not regret my decision at all. Madrid is amazing and so different than I thought it was going to be like. There were so many beautiful stone buildings, impressive statues, and public gardens. The influence of the Hapsburg empire is so clear and lasting in the city. I guess I thought things would be different because I remember my brother Max talking about how it was 100 degrees there when he visited (in the summer way back in 1996). By contrast, Madrid in April is a cool, but sunny 65 degrees (e.g. perfect). What did I do while in Madrid? Well, I basically explored the city’s food culture and their major art museum: The Prado. The first night, I stopped by this amazing little bakery and ordered an empanada and wonderful apple custard tart to snack on before settling down in my hotel. Then, I went to an adorable café for a veggie burger and my first glass of wine in 3 weeks. The food tasted so much like home – what do I mean by that? I tasted like all of the great café food you can get in New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Durham etc. – it was fresh and healthy. I enjoyed the quaint/warm atmosphere and read my kindle for a little while before heading back to my hotel.

The next morning, I went wandering in my neighborhood and came across a really busy café, where I stopped in and ordered a café au lait and the pastry of the day (another amazing apple tart). I felt like I was in a really authentic Madrid café – I was definitely the only tourist (and woman) there. After breakfast, I made my way through the neighborhood and down to the Prado, which is located right by the royal botanical gardens. The Prado was amazing!! I saw a special exhibit called “Las Furias,” which documents the popularity of painting various Greek heroes in the gothic/horror model. I was really excited to see this gruesome/fascinating exhibit and it did not disappoint in its gravity. I also stumbled across another fascinating section of the museum, the “Varez Fisa Gallery: Spanish Art from the Romanesque to the Renaissance,” which showed a much older/Greecian Spanish style. I’m not going to lie, the Prado has a really sweet collection of masterpieces by famous artists such as Goya, Velazquez Fra Angelico, Bosch, Brueghel, Titian, Reubens. My favorite paintings were Velazquez’ "Las Meninas," Goya’s “Saturn devouring his Child,” Fra Anglico’s “The Annunciation,” Boch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death. 

After touring the Prado for 4.5 hours, I made my way out into the world to grab some lunch at a local café (where I tried a classic rice dish of Madrid with mussels and shrimps). 

Then it was back to exploring. I walked down to the Plaza Mayor, the Palacio Real, the Catedral de la Almudena, the Teatro Real, Puerto Del Sol, then back to the royal botanical gardens and the Parque de el Retiro where I visited the Crystal Palace (where there was a cool exhibit called “The Splendid Hotel”) , the Palace of Velazquez (where there was a modern art exhibit called “Idea: Painting Force”), and the Monumento Alfonso XII. For dinner, I grabbed some pastries from my favorite little bakery and picked up some fresh fruits and veggies from a local market.

Before I knew it, morning had come and I was setting off once again. But, before I did, I stopped by my bakery to get some food for the plane journey (I wasn’t sure if Iberia was providing any meals. They actually are, but I’m glad I have my other food!) I also stopped at a little Mom and Pop café to get some café au lait and an egg/potato tart. The journey to the airport could not have been smoother. As I said before, I had a bit of luck with my seating arrangement, and have plenty of room to spread out my things as I type away. I’ve taken a few cat naps, enjoyed the Hunger Games and Saving Mr. Banks, and managed to come to the rescue of a group of French speaking Swiss people who could not fill out there customs forms because they were only available in English and Spanish. So, I spent a good 20 minutes talking to this 80 year old lady trying to tell her what she needed to fill out on the form. Over the course of the flight, some of the older gentlemen in the group have started conversations with me about my research, travel, life etc. Once again, I am so glad to have my French speaking skills, yet I also realize how much left I have to re-learn before I am proficient once again!

Next stop: Lima (in 3 hours!)

High Atlas Mountains and Berber Villages

I’m writing this blog post from the airplane from Madrid to Lima. The flight is 12 hours long. I’m 8 hours in and feeling fairly good considering I have 4 more hours to go. I actually had a bit of luck – the lady sitting next to me moved to the center section of seats, so I have 2 whole seats to myself! YES! I must have been giving off the air that I was a bit bizarre. Hahaha!

Anyway, on our last full day in Morocco, Elah and I decided to take a High Atlas Mountains hike with a Berber guide. A lovely British couple (Darren and Linda) joined us on our tour – we made fast friends with them. They were absolutely wonderful and quite well travelled so we had a lot to talk about. We drove an hour to meet our guide, Norrdeene, who grew up near the Berber town of Amizmiz (known for its Tuesday produce market). Norrdeene had a really refreshing sense of humor and once he heard that I study food history, he modified our hike to include a tour of the neighborhood markets as well as a visit to a Berber family’s home to have tea. The market in Amizmiz was small, but fascinating. Norr explained that the town veterinarian has to approve the animals health before and after slaughter. This veterinarian is not a religious figure, he is an employee of the state. He is the one who stamps the meat after it is butchered to mark its quality. While walking through the market, we ooched past hanging carcasses and cow heads. Linda had a bit of a rough go, actually, because she is vegetarian.

In no time, we were on our way through the beautiful mountain countryside. We walked past argon groves, sheperds, and around poppy fields. Eventually we made our way into the mountain range, down rocky valleys, and along beautiful mountain streams. The landscape changed so quickly – it was amazing! 

As I said above, we stopped for tea in a Berber village and met a family of 3 women, representing 3 generations. They showed us their home and then made bread for us in their traditional Berber oven. Similar to the open hearth kitchen I have worked at, they heat the oven with a wood burning fire and then wipe out the ashes. Interestingly, they slap the loaf of bread right on the oven wall and spread it out. It takes about 15 minutes to cook. After watching this process, we were invited to sit in their living room where Norr poured us tea and we chatted about Berber culture (and how it is not represented in Moroccan textbooks at all). Norr was quite passionate about the mistreatment/misrepresentation of Berber culture in Morocco. He said that 80% of the population is Berber (or part Berber), but the culture is very much overshadowed by Arab culture.

After our visit, we continued on our hike through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever come across – the colors were so magnificent: red, orange, and yellow earth with dark green trees. So pretty!  We had lunch at hiking camp in the mountains and then made our way back to Amizmiz, stopping at a classy resort to use the restroom. We bid goodbye to Norr and took the hired car back to Marrakech. That night, as I said before, we headed back to Jmaal El Fnaa to people watch and eat again.

The next morning, we had breakfast, and I said goodbye to Elah and wished her safe travels to Scottland. I stuck around the riad for a bit – wrote a few blog entries on the terrace, enjoyed some coffee etc., and then made my way to the airport (where I ran into Elah because her flight was delayed!) It was so nice to see her again before I set off for Madrid.


The next day, we set off to the seaside town of Essouira, which is one of the most popular day trips from Marrakech. Just 3 hours away by public mini bus, the town of Essouira is well worth the 6 hour return commute. Elah and I sat up front with the driver. He did not speak much English, so we ended up speaking to each other in French about Essouira (where to eat, what to see etc.) Along the way, the mini bus took us to an argon oil collective (By this point, Elah and I were not surprised that this mandatory tourist stop was included in our journey). While at the women’s artisan collective, I just felt like there was something slightly “off.” I was afraid that although the tour guides were telling us that the Berber women working there received 75% of the profits, the reality may have been different. The entire set up was just too touristy – all the women lined up in a room, pounding away at the shells of the argon seed etc. I feel that that work would normally be done in the women’s home as part of a traditional artisan economic system.

The road to Essouira, as hinted at above, is know for its argon oil forests. One thing to note about argon oil is that goats are an important part of the processing of the oil. They eat the seeds off the argon trees, and only after they are digested, do the women pound of the shell (which is easier to get off after passing through the goat’s digestive tract). There is a really famous photograph of a goat perched on an extended argon oil branch. Elah was hoping to spot one of those goats munching away on such a precarious perch. On the way to Essouira, we passed entire trees of goats! Sadly, these were not natural occurrences, but part of Morocco’s tourist trade. I can just imagine the goats being like, "How did we get up here? This is so awkward! How do we get down?" We came across another such photo op as we approached an overlook onto Essouira. There were no tree goats here, but camels instead! Elah and I did not partake.

Essouira was just so beautiful. Many Europeans liken it to St. Malo in France (it was designed by the same architect). It actually reminded me of some of the seaside towns along the Mediterranean with its white washed buildings and blue shutters. AND it was a beautiful, sunny day to boot (and not too windy).

We had four hours to explore the city before we had to catch the mini van back to Marrakech. We started off on the docks – right where the boats dock and the fish merchants sell their wares right along the quay. The wind smelled like salt and fresh fish (something neither Elah and I were used to!) Dozens of vendors displayed their catches along the road: stingray, squid, fishes, crabs, shrimps. All sorts of delicious, fresh catches. People swarmed on the market, picking out their fish for lunch/dinner, I assume. In addition to the crowds and vendors, we saw many sailors manning their boats, mending their bright red fishing nets, selling their catches to restaurants etc. 

Elah and I walked up onto the ramparts to look out at the famous islands just off the coast – where they used to make the infamous purple dye from crushed crustacean shells only found in that part of Africa (You may or may not be impressed by the following…I actually knew that fun fact about the dyes not from our guidebook but from something I remember reading in one of my world history textbooks in middle school. As part of a project in 6th grade, I had to do a bit of research on royal medieval garb, and I learned that purple was one of the most expensive dyes for a good part of western history because the dye was produced on one tiny islands just off the coast of Africa. I was history nerd then, and am a history nerd now).

After prowling the ramparts and snapping a few photos, we made our way to one of the ancient forts along the coast to get an even better view of the coast and city. We happily watched seagulls fly by over our heads as we smelled the fresh sea breeze. After our short visit to the fort, we went to some of the nearby fish stalls to pick out some fish and have them grill it right there. I tried a mild white fish. Delicious! We ended up sitting across from a middle aged French woman who lives in the French part of Switzerland. She did not speak any English, so I held an 30-minute long conversation with her and would translate for Elah. This woman had visited Morocco 5 years ago and went on a Berber/Saharan desert tour. She said the Sahara desert part was absolutely magnificent. She said that the immensity of the desert really inspired her. She also had only good things to say about Berber culture and how friendly and open the people are. Elah and I were excited to hear this since we signed up for a hike through the High Atlas mountains/Berber villages the next day.

After lunch, Elah and I headed into the medina where we did a bit of shopping. The prices were so much less expensive in Essouira than in Marrakesh! Things were seriously 1/3 the price – both touristy things and produce. For example, olives are 20 Dh per kilo in Marrakech and only 7 Dh per kilo in Essouira. As you can imagine, I bought a whole bag full of spicy olives to munch on. We also noted that shop keepers just let us look around their shops without pressuring us (for the most part). It was such a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. And, as a little side note, this ADORABLE old man with half his teeth missing struck up a conversation with me in French at the olive stand. He, of course, asked how I liked Morocco and which city I preferred etc. What a friendly guy! He bought his olives, bid us a good day, and set off.

That night, Elah and I decided to brave Jmaal El Fnaa. We left our purses, cameras, and precious items at our hostel. I shoved 100 Dh in my bra, and we set off into the crowds free of worry of being pick pocketed (which is notoriously terrible in the square). We walked around, enjoying the sights that we had only observed from on high the past few days. It was so overwhelming and awesome! Although, I have to admit, it was a pain to be hassled by aggressive performers to donate money for shows that we weren’t even watching. But, when they see a European-looking tourist, they pounce on them to see if they can get some sort of easy income.

Eventually, Elah and I made our way to restaurant #1, which was highly recommended by Trip Advisor/Lonely Planet and is used to dealing with tourists. Elah and I scored two seats right near the grill – PERFECT! We had the best seats in the house and a really friendly waiter who didn’t pressure us into buying anything we didn’t want. The star of the night, by far, was the pastilla. Elah and I are not sure if it was chicken or pigeon pastille, but we loved the sugary cinnamon outer crust and the white meat and peanut filling. I mean, I REALLY loved the addition of the peanuts. I told Elah that I wanted to add that pastilla to the list of things I want to eat before I die. In addition to that dish, we had grilled eggplant, lamb, chicken, and beef as well as fresh bread with tomato and spicy sauces. (We actually ended up going back to the same exact place the next night to have the same things! It was that good).

From Places to Merdursas...Marrakech!

We dedicated our first full day in Marrakech to sight seeing. Marrakech is a bit different than Fes in that it actually has established its historic sights as tourist destinations, which has had two consequences: 1) the historic buildings/sights have been historically preserved and are better maintained than those in Fes 2) there are crowds of tourists with DSLR cameras, Louis Vouton bags, and harem pants in droves. We started our day off at the Palais Badia (the beautiful Palace). Similar to other Moroccan buildings, this beautifully restored home was marked by elaborately carved stone archways, colorfully painted ceilings, blue and green tiled floors, and courtyards.

In one of the first courtyards we saw, elaborate cedar and stone carvings provided a stunning architectural background to the thriving orange trees in the inner courtyard. Off of the courtyard were a series of rooms with breath taking ceilings and stone work. I believe they use vegetable dyes on this ceiling work – the colors are a deeper and darker than you might expect (almost like medieval European paintings on wood planks/canvases). Floral themes are really key as is the “tree of life” – a common symbol in Moroccan design. We wove our way through the palace to some other courtyards. By far, my favorite architectural element was the painted stone archways. Because these buildings have been restored, one can get a better sense of how colorful they were in the nineteenth century. I love the turquoise flowers inlaid in the stone.

After the Palais Badia, we visited another palace. This one, however, had been systematically taken apart over a 10 year period by a conqueror. Apparently, in its heyday, the palace was the most majestic in Morocco. After the furniture, fixtures, tile etc. were removed; the palace transformed into a mere skeleton of its previous self. Today, it looks sort of like a Roman-era fortress.

On our tour, we saw what used to be the expansive inner courtyard, the crystal room, the dungeons, and the stables. We also had the chance to climb up on the ramparts for a spectacular view of the entire complex and one of the storks who nest on those ramparts. Then we made our way through the souqs near the palace. I really enjoyed wandering around these markets because (more so than in Fes) they display their spices and minerals in giant cones and colorful baskets – a visual feast! We were able to smell star anise, sandalwood, rose buds, cumin, paprika, and ginger. Soon after that, we had lunch at a café with a cute view of the city; I enjoyed vegetable couscous with zucchini, onions, and pumpkin.

After our relaxing lunch, Elah and I made our way to the Saadian tombs – the most popular tourist destination in Marrakech (with the lines to prove it!) The Saadian tombs house the graves of some of the most revered Muslim leaders in Morocco’s history and their ornately carved stoned tombs are proof of that status. There is one major tomb and some subsidiary tombs – all of which are nestled up against a beautiful 17th century mosque. I don’t even know how to describe the stonework. It was truly overwhelming in its detail and extent. Because the site is so crowded, you only have a few short moments to absorb as much as you can before moving along with the flow of people. Good thing we can snap photos to peruse later! There were large tour groups everywhere – some had a guide with a microphone that transmitted his little speech to their wireless headsets. Pretty cool (and definitely a sign of how much more developed tourism is in Marrakech).

You might think that our day was over at this point. No way! Even though it was 90 degrees and Elah and I were gulping down water like camels about to set off on a 10 day trek in the Sahara, we forged on into the mellah or Jewish quarter to visit a Jewish graveyard. Unfortunately, we had to pass by the tanneries on our way and were perused by numerous savvy men trying to get us to go to the tanneries. We avoided them as much as possible (especially after 2 British women in our riad told us how terrible their experience was at the tanneries). The cemetery was tricky to find, so I had to ask for directions several times. There were numerous people who pretended that the cemeteries were closed and tried to convince us to follow them to the tanneries, and there were some who tried giving us false directions. But, it was actually pretty easy to tell when someone was trying to bamboozle you. So, Elah and I just marched on with our heads held high. 

At one point, we stopped to buy water at a little convenience store and I proceeded to have a lovely conversation with the elder gentlemen who ran the shop. We spoke in French about Marrakech, our travels, the importance of learning new languages and traveling when you can to learn about other cultures and expand your world view. He told me that he only had a 8th grade education and had to quit school to help his father with the family business. He told me that his grandson intends to go to university. He was adamant that education is essential to ones success, but also felt that some of the greatest lessons he learned in life were from conversations he held with regular people. There is beauty in everyday life, he explained. This was one of the many moments in which I was so happy that I knew French because I would never have been able to have this meaningful conversation otherwise.

Eventually, we made it to the cemetery, which was quite large and very quiet. There were a few other tourists there, but they were off on the other end of the cemetery. Elah and I walked through the cemetery, visiting the mausoleums of some of the holy men. We found it interesting that so many of the normal graves were unmarked. A man at the entrance of the cemetery noted that these were mass graves and are much older graves than the ones at the back of the property (which had specific names/dates etc. circa the mid-twentieth century). Elah pointed out that Jewish people leave little stones on the graves of friends/relatives as a sign of respect. We also noted that many of the graves also had covered metal boxes to burn candles and incense. Elah told me she had never heard of that tradition and that it must be something specific to Moroccan Jews. When we left, we gave the cemetery attendant a few dirhams and made our way back to the heart of the Medina (avoiding the hubbub of the tanneries as best as we could).

We took a bit of a break at our riad – we enjoyed some mint tea, read our guide book up on the rooftop terrace and eventually made our way to the center square Jmaal El Fnaa for some of the most fascinating people watching of all time.

How would I describe Jmaal El Fnaa? Well, it is a UNESCO heritage site. Honestly, though, that puts it in a category among more “conventional” historic sites. Jmaal El Fnaa is perhaps best described as a street circus. The square is busy 24 hours a day. During the day, snake charmers (yes, they exist) play their mesmerizing tunes while cobras wave their heads back and forth; women crouch on the ground, creating brilliant henna designs on patrons' hands (watch out for the synthetic henna though – it is toxic); men man stalls that sell little tagines and other Moroccan ceramics for 1 euro. As night falls, lantern merchants bring their wares out into the square, lightening their colorful/intricate crafts with candles. Moroccan story tellers attract dozens of onlookers hoping to hear some traditional fairy tales in Arabic. Dance troops, acrobats, flame throwers, and all manner of street performers claim spots int the expansive square and seek to capture the attention of Moroccan and European tourists alike. My favorite part of Jmaal El Fnaa is the 25 or so itinerant restaurants that set up shop every single night in the square. They bring their own generators, lights, tables, tents, grills etc., and make amazing/cheap street food. Elah and I stuck to regular restaurants our first two nights, and then moved down into the square to eat at the stalls our second two nights. They have sausage links, every kind of kebab you could ever want, pastilla, tagines etc. Since they are grilling most of their food, smoke billows up from this cluster of tents all night long – it is a really magical sight with all of the dramatic lighting of the square.

Anyway, Elah and I found a lovely little balcony on the corner of the square to sit and enjoy “the show.” We enjoyed a tasty dinner of tagines – I tried kefta (minced meat) and egg tagine this time. It was awesome! Might have been one of my favorite tagines while in Morocco. Elah and I didn’t even talk that much because our attention was glued on the passersby below.

After a good night’s rest and another hearty breakfast of fresh baked bread, jams, and café au lait, Elah and I set off into Marrakech once again. We targeted the southern part of the city the day before, and set off to tackle the northern part on this day. We headed to a really cool photography museum that showcased photos of Morocco from the 1880-1920. There were portraits of Berber people, scenes from the Sahara, and vibrant images from the souqs. Elah and I noted that both men and women wore long, white dress-like garb (much different from the colorful/modern clothing in the city today). The photographs were fascinating, but my favorite part of the museum was its roof top terrace, which gave us a panoramic view of the Medina.

From up high, Marrakech stretched out before our eyes – hundreds of buildings done in pink stucco with palm trees popping up every few hundred feet. Because we were in the general area of the main souqs, we took some time after lunch to poke our heads into various shops. We saw shops with hundreds of lanterns, ceramics, slippers etc. So pretty! We enjoyed a light lunch too.

Eventually, we made our way to the Medersa Ben Youssef, which is supposed to be one of the finest examples of Moroccan architecture in the entire country. Similar to its older counterpart in Fes, this university is based around a beautifully engraved central courtyard with dormitories for 900 students around that central area. The wood carving, stone work, fountains, and tile work was stunning! 

After the Merdersa, we headed to a museum dedicated to Moroccan crafts (ranging from Berber textiles, to Arab swords, to modern paintings). This may have been one of the most beautiful buildings Elah and I visited while in Morocco. The museum is located in a completely refurbished palace and thus gives one a sense of how these grand residences would have looked like in their full glory. For example, much of the carved stone was actually painted with vibrant blues, yellows, reds, and greens. The tile work on the floors was also complete – I love the combination of greens and blues.

With time to kill, Elah and I headed into a specialty shop where she bought some souvenirs for her family. We had another wonderful conversation with the shopkeeper there in French/English. He spoke about education, language acquisition, Moroccan culture etc. He was a very friendly, sweet, and astute person. He knew how to balance a sale with good conversation. We were actually in his shop for a good half an hour, I think! 

After making those purchases, Elah and I made our way back to the souqs and just got lost. We didn’t worry about getting back to the main square (all the roads seem to lead there anyway). On our little journey we ran across produce vendors, lizards sellers, olive merchants etc. It was a really pleasant afternoon. Later than evening, we made our way back to Jmaal El Fnaa and managed to find a seat at one of the recommended roof top restaurants – this one with a completely different view of the square. 

Funny story – when we made our way up to the rooftop, there were no more tables right along the guard rail that looked down into the square. So, being the proactive people we are, we asked the people up front if they would be willing to move to the side a bit so that we could move a vacant table closer to the action. They agreed to do so. So, Elah and I grabbed our table, waddled over near the balcony’s edge, and realized that we had only taken the table top and not the legs! We had to waddle back, collect the bottom of the table, and make our way back once again. Hahahaaa. I wish I could say people weren’t staring, but they were. And Elah and I were laughing so hard. BUT, it was all worth it!! The view of the square was mesmerizing – we had a better angle to see the story tellers, dance troops, and itinerant restaurants. We just sat their for hours watching hoola hoop and African dancers, guitar players, and story tellers. Thousands of people were clustered in little crowd shaped doughnuts around these various acts.