Thursday, December 18, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 2 (Part 2)

Walking across the large parking lot from the hot springs, we arrived at the gondola. We were disappointed to find that the last trip down was in 20 minutes, and the operator told us there is about 45 minutes worth of trails and sights to see up the mountain. It was a good thing that I didn't hike up there! I might have been stuck up the mountain if I did, and have to hike all the way back, downhill on slippery icy trails. Anyway, we decided to do the Banff Gondola some other day.

The walk back was long and cold. Near the Banff Springs Hotel, we saw a buck with large antlers leaping out of the woods to cross the road, which startled me a surprisingly large amount. I started taking pictures of it, and noticed that no one else seemed to have cared it was there. I guess the people who have been in Banff for a while find deer in town just as interesting as I find squirrels around where I live. Afterwards, I took a quick walk around downtown just to see it, and bought a phone card I can use to call my parents. The walk back up the hill to the hostel in the dark was both relaxing and haunting. It was great to see the stars glowing brightly against the backdrop of tall mountain peaks. However, I kept my eye out for bears, wolves, and cougars that may be lurking in the dense forest around the road.

When I got back, I took a shower to rid myself of the stench of sulphur I took away from the springs. While doing so, I made the mistake of not taking my keys with me to the shower, and was locked out of my room in my boxers! Well, I figure I was lucky this was the only time this has happened to me so far. Not bad, being locked out in your boxers only once in about three months worth of hostel stays! Seeing that it was well below freezing outside and the reception was in a different building, I decided to look for help in the hallways. Knocking on my room didn't help as no one was in there, so I knocked on Kim's room, which just happened to be right beside mine. I was so relieved to see Kim's smiling face open the door. After about ten minutes of standing in the halls in my boxers and sheepishly smiling at everyone passing me giving me curious looks and glares, Kim finally returned with the key. She told me that it took her a while as she just realized she didn't know my last name after they asked for it, but mercifully, the receptionist gave her the benefit of the doubt.

Since it was still early, I just relaxed in my room for a while, where I met one of my new roommates, Bethany, who just arrived from England. She was going to stay all winter here and look for a job. At dinner with Beth and Kim, I tried Kokanee beer, and Beth tried poutine. It was a challenge not to eat her poutine as I was hungry, and I had been looking forward to returning to Canada and eating poutine for nearly a year as I just can't seem to find it in the Bay Area in the States! Afterwards, we went to the bar, where the real fun for the day started!

My time at the bar was spent in two distinct phases.

I split a pitcher of beer with Kim. We met Beth's friends from England, who had all just arrived and were also looking for work. They were immediately absorbed in their conversations, which left my and Kim to talk for a long time and drink. Soon, we were on our second pitcher of beer. At this time, I started seeing things in a more rosy light, and the hostel bar was getting full. One of the English guys had a Japanese version of cup-and-ball called kendama. We all marvelled at how ridiculously good he was at it and all of us took turns trying to replicate his moves in the most sloppy manner as were were all starting to feel our drinks by now. This is when I met the Kiwis sitting beside us as they also tried their hand at kendama.

As we are finishing our second pitcher of beer and contemplating when to get our third, I noticed that the Kiwis had a huge pile of broken straws in front the then. The bartender, a feisty but friendly Asian girl came over, picked up the pile, and threw it at them and they shouted friendly insults and witty responses at each other. Curious, I leaned over and asked what they were up to. One of them held out a tightly coiled straw and told me to flick it. I was enthralled by the straw popping and breaking cleanly in half, but apparently everyone else has seen this before. I'm not sure how to missed out on such an amazing trick for so long in my life! At this time, I was having fun, along with everyone else around me. As we finished our third pitcher, the Swiss from my room came into the bar and after a short talk, he bought a shot of Jägermeister for me. Now, if I had been on the road for a few weeks, this would be no problem, but seeing that I haven't drank that much in a while, was still working on getting over a cold, and I had only got three hours of sleep the night before, I was really feeling the one and a half pitchers of beer plus a shot.

We spent the rest of the night talking and stealing straws from the bartenders, creating pile after pile of broken straws in front of us. The Kiwis told me that they were in Canada as part of the New Zealand Army and Navy who were undergoing bomb disposal training in Medicine Hat which they endearingly called Med-Hat. At this point, I was thinking unclearly enough to join the fray when they started arm wrestling each other even though I knew they were military men and I haven't practised kung fu or been to the gym for about half a year since I moved. Of course, I was thoroughly and quickly humiliated. Before going to bed, Kim, the Swiss, and I stumbled out into the cold to watch the stars for a while. We finally wobbled back to our rooms at 3 in the morning. One important development from this night in the bar was that I proposed renting a car the next day to explore Lake Louise, which Kim and the Kiwis enthusiastically agreed to. The unfortunate thing about that was that we agreed to meet in the lobby at 10am.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 2

I woke to the sounds of people packing and leaving in the morning. I was groggy and tired, but also excited to start exploring. After laying in bed for a long time, I got up at 10:30, took a quick walk around to see if there were any good places to meet people and to check out the hostel restaurant. The Hostelling International Banff Alpine Centre was quite impressive. The building I was in, the new wing, had a large cavernous atrium with exposed wood beams and a gas fireplace. Each room had en suite washrooms and personal shower rooms in the hallways. It was very clean and comfortable for a hostel. Not finding anyone around after my walk, I returned to my room to prepare a day pack and go exploring. Returning to my room, I found the person who had been coughing all night tending to a nosebleed. I had a short conversation with him. He was from Switzerland and was taking a long road trip all around North America. He told me he was going skiing later in the day, and as he had a car, I was tempted to go with him, but I decided I should take it easy seeing that I was still getting over a cold and got only three hours of sleep last night.

After getting a map from the hostel, I started waking down Tunnel Mountain Road toward the town centre. As I was coming up with a plan on how to meet other travellers, I saw a girl ahead of me stop to take a photo of the beautiful mountains around us. Not wanting to spend the day alone, I jumped at the opportunity to meet another backpacker, as I always do when I am on the road by myself. Walking up to where she was, I pulled out my camera and said "That's not a bad idea! I think I'll take a photo here myself!" Although a bit contrived, it was a conversation starter. From what I have seen so far, almost all travellers are very friendly once you make contact so it is important to make the extra effort to introduce yourself to others. I found out that her name was Kimberly and she was from Vancouver. Like myself, she was visiting for just here for a few days. Since she didn't have any plans for the day, we decided to stick together to keep each other company.

After a quick stop at an info centre and a mall for a quick breakfast in a very pretty and festive downtown area, we decided to walk to the Banff Springs Hotel before proceeding to the Banff Gondola and the Upper Hot Springs at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Although we wasted nearly an hour walking in the wrong direction, we eventually found our way. Crossing the bridge over the Bow River, we took some photos. It was very pretty there. There were tall snowy peaks in the distance, lush green pine forests ahead, and the quaint downtown area was overshadowed by its backdrop of an enormous rocky cliff with stands of snow clutcing on to the bare, steep rocky face.

After nearly losing our way again, we finally get our first glimpse of the Banff Springs Hotel. It was magnificent, a large stone building looming majestically over dense forests against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. I found it rather more severe looking than the Château Frontenac, but due to the smaller size, it seemed less imposing and intimidating. Connected to it was a rather more modern conference facility, some car parks, and a kitchen with a vent spewing large amounts of steam that clung to surrounding trees as a glistening layer of ice. A helpful landscaper told us where to go for a nice view of the hotel, but I found it rather difficult to capture the feel of the place on film, simultaneously stern and inviting.

Continuing on behind the hotel, we entered the trail system which surrounds the town of Banff. It was a short hike of about one and a half kilometres to the Goldola and Hot Springs. On the way, we talked about the wildlife in the area as I read online that there are a lot of deer, elk, longhorn sheep, bears, wolves, and cougars around. I was keeping an eye out just in case we bumped into one as I haven't been in a forest in an area with such a high concentration of wildlife before. After a while, we ran into a small steaming stream and we caught whiffs of sulphur in the air. We were pretty excited as this means that we were close to the hot springs. After yet another confusing trundle around a large building that didn't seem to have any doors, we emerged out of the forest and onto a road leading to a large parking lot in front of the Banff Gondola.

In my sleep-deprived state, I was surprisingly tired, although I was surprised at the amount of altitude we gained from the trail. Seeing that Kim wasn't that enthusiastic about the prospect of hiking up Sulphur Mountain, we decided to go soak in the hot springs instead. Outside, in front of the building, there was a small pond and a bridge covered in an orange residue and filled with ice. I hoped that the hot springs were still running as I have heard that in the winter, the flow of the hot springs become drastically reduced. Luckily for us, the hot springs were still producing enough water to fill the pool that day.

The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a modern facility. The main attraction is a large swimming pool where the water from the spring is collected. From the pool, one can gaze out over the glass railings at the forested valley below and the snowy peaks around it. One of the mountains across the valley had a curious spiral pattern of rock near the top which is a testament to the geological stresses that created the Rocky Mountains. After soaking for about an hour, we decided it was time to take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain to catch the sunset. Walking out dehydrated and all wrinkled, I saw a sign that said "Maximum suggested bath time: 20 minutes."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 1

Wednesday, November 26, 2008. Landing in Calgary at 9pm after a 3 hour flight with some very friendly Air Canada crew, I feel lucky that I booked this trip. I had booked this trip less than two days ago, after my week long trip to Hawaii was cancelled with less than two days notice. My friends, who I was supposed to go with, were asked to stay for work as their team was falling behind as an important deadline was fast approaching. I reflected on how unlucky I had been at trying to take long vacations. Last time, I had to cancel my vacation after being hit by a car while cycling, and this time my friends had to put in some extra time at work.

Anyway, the important thing is that I am here now. Although I arrived alone, it was better than spending a four day long weekend back in San Francisco without doing anything really exciting. Being perpetually affected by the travel bug, I was very happy to finally be out of town again.

After picking up my bags and going through customs, I took a cab from the airport to the Greyhound station as I had only two hours to purchase a ticket and get on the bus. On my cab ride, I chatted with my driver, who was from Punjab. We talked about my visit to India, life in Calgary, and the recent situation in Mumbai. Along the way, he pointed out to me certain sights of the city, including a cheap hotel where all the heroin addicts stayed at. I had thought the cab ride would only cost about $25, so I was horrified as I watched the metre tick ever higher as we approached the brightly lit downtown core and drove past it. Arriving at the Greyhound station, I begrudgingly paid the nearly $50 in cab fares and bid my driver good-bye.

I still had about an hour to burn after purchasing my ticket, so after asking the ticket counter for directions, I went out for a walk to find something to eat. I was very content feeling the familiar nip of winter around my ears and face. I really do miss the cold and the snow while living in San Francisco.

After a failed attempt at finding food, I started crossing the street on a pedestrian overpass. There was a view of the downtown core there, so I decided to take my ceremonial first photo of the trip there. Bracing the camera against the railings, I snapped away. As I was busy taking the photos, I noticed a bulky young man, perhaps just slightly older than I am, approaching. I asked him where the nearest convenience store is, and he told me he was looking for the same thing. He was very upbeat and invited me to join him, so I did. After a bit of walking, we started crossing some train tracks in a rather empty and abandoned business area. At this point, he turns to me and says "Not to scare you or anything, but I just got out of jail." I was extremely amused by this and smiled. I thought about how I would be freaking out in this situation if I had encountered it two years earlier, before my travel adventures. In this case however, I felt quite comfortable around him as he seemed to be a nice guy. It turns out that he was arrested for taking a drunk fight a bit too far. As we were walking around, we talked to a few other people who seemed familiar with jail life. Arriving at a convenience store, he grabbed a cigarette and a Coke to enjoy after being deprived of them for months.

We eventually found a Mr. Sub where we grabbed some food, and ate back at the bus station. We talked about what life was like in jail and the vast differences between the jails in the area. I learned that the worst thing you call someone, at least in jails in Alberta, is a "goof." I also learned that if you should never show that you are afraid of someone or do anything to provoke the guards as that will be set you up for a good beating later on. He told me of all the wasted talent in jail, but I was happy to hear that there are programs to help prisoners learn valuable skills and get an education while incarcerated. Pulling out items from a large paper bag, he showed me some of his souvenirs from jail, drawings of his fellow prisoners, his bead work that he learned in prison, and told me stories of other creations from his buddies. He told me that jail had been good for him. He quit smoking pot, stopped drinking, learned to be patient with life, and found God. He even game me a few book suggestions that I will follow up on when I get a chance to.

When the time came, I boarded the bus bound for Vancouver which will drop me off in Banff. There was a crazy mute that repeatedly made decapitation gestures to the bus driver in the station. He seemed to be telling people either that he saw a decapitation or saw someone related to it. This put everyone on edge as it was clear he was referring to the recent decapitation incident on the Greyhound bus in Manitoba. After a quick security check, with one person from the American military being turned away for being drunk, the bus started up and rumbled out of the terminal.

As we pulled onto Highway 1 westbound, the bus driver announced the estimated arrival times and break length of the various stops throughout the night. This reminded me of my trip on overnight buses in Europe, and a rather romantic wanderlust feeling came over me as I thought of the people who are taking the bus all the way to Vancouver. As we pulled away from Calgary, I can see a tight vertical cluster of brightly lit buildings in an otherwise flat sea of light behind us as we ascended a hill, passing by the Clagary Olympic facilities. Eventually, I started seeing dark shadows of tall hills against the starry night as we neared Banff.

I got in at about an hour past midnight. Taking a cab to the hostel, I checked in, found my bed in the dark, set up the pillow covers and sheets, and went to bed at around 2 after a failed attempt to socialize with a group of people drinking in the lounge. Someone in my room was quite sick, and he kept me up until after 5 with his coughing, so I wasn't looking forward to waking up tomorrow and having a full day of adventure. I decided to take it easy the next day.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 3)

As we drove on, the terrain became sandier. From time to time, we would drive past small piles of sand on the side of the road and some sand blowing across the road. We passed fields of fences built in patterns of connected squares, which Mohammed directed our attention to and explained they were built to slow the expansion of the desert. We noticed that in many places, these cubes were filled with sand and seemed to do a good job of stopping the sand from blowing across the road. We also saw a lot of interesting desert plants. I saw some plants that appeared to have clusters of fruit much too large for its size. I asked Mohammed if those fruit contained water. He told me "Never touch one, they are filled with acid!" It turns out that these plants are of a species called Calotropis Procera, and that the fruit were just leaves folded in a peculiar way. I had hoped that what we were seeing was evolution creating a desert plant that, like cacti, stored extra water, but just to protect it from animals, also make the water unusable to anyone else. I was disappointed to find that that this was not the case. However, Mohammed was right in that the plant was filled with acid. Calotropis Procera contains a toxic and an acidic resin, likely used as a defence mechanism.

As the terrain became sandier, we started seeing large piles of sand on the surrounding hills. I was so excited the first time I saw the steep slopes of a distant mesa covered in sand. The sand was crawling up about two thirds of the mesa, forming ripples. One can also see the sand being blown over the top of the mesa in thin wisps dancing in the wind.

We decided that it would be a good idea to buy a headscarf before going into the desert. Mohammed decided to take us to a trading post called Maison Touareg, named after the Tuareg people of North Africa. Little did we know that Mohammed seemed very buddy-buddy with the owner of the shop. We suspect this was another of his standard stops for tourists, unless people in Morocco are just always very friendly with each other.

Upon arriving at the trading post, we were led in some gates to a relatively large compound of mud buildings. Upon entering, we were immediately served mint tea and the owner and his aides unrolled a variety of different carpets for us to see. Apparently Morocco is known for its carpets. Two interesting things that I learnt was that many of their carpets were made of cactus fibre, which I found fascinating. Cactus fibre made a very smooth, thin, and cool-feeling carpet in contrast to the thick wool carpets. The second interesting fact is that the Berbers in the area are divided into a number of tribes. These include the Glaoui tribe along with some other tribes with exotic sounding names, one of which I think was named the Sahara tribe. All of the tribes except for one follow the Islamic faith, except for one, whose members are Jewish. Since Islamic beliefs forbid depicting God's creations such as humans and animals, all of the carpets made by the Islamic tribes are decorated only with patterns. This makes the carpets from the Jewish tribe easy to identify, as theirs are the only carpets that are also decorated with stylized animals and human figures. We were shown a gorgeous example of such a rug, which had pictures of birds on a red background.

After being shown the carpets, we were ushered into different rooms accompanied by different aides. This was done quite subtly, and when I found myself separated from Felix, I tried to re-join Felix, but was blocked on my attempts. Although I was a little bit worried about being separated, I realized that this was a very clever negotiating tactic. They were separating us so that each of us would have to deal with multiple opponents during negotiations. Having no desire to purchase a rug that day, I was not worried about ending up with a overpriced carpet, but only mildly annoyed at this delay is us getting to the desert.

The owner moved between me and Felix, and while he was gone, his aides stayed with me. I kept telling him that I was not interested in buying a carpet and that I probably won't have enough money to buy one anyway. He kept badgering me and eventually I agreed to write an offer on a sheet of paper. I wrote 600 dirhams for a large cactus fibre carpet, in which he responded by offering me a smaller cactus fibre carpet. After a series of refusals, he got the message that I was not willing to pay a price that was acceptable with him, so he took me back to the headscarves that we picked out earlier, upon entering. He told me that it was 150 dirhams for the headscarf, which I knew was overpriced but not wanting to negotiate with him any longer, I accepted. I was then led to a room filled with interesting antiques in which I would have to wait while they finished dealing with Felix. After a while, we were reunited. Felix had his headscarf with him, which I found out he paid a different price for. I can't remember exactly now, but I think he paid 200 dirhams for it. On the way out, the owner picked up a fossil and gave it to Felix. If I remember correctly that Felix paid 200 dirhams for the headscarf, this was probably to prevent us from finding out we were dealt with unequally later on. However, I may have been willing to pay 50 dirhams for a fossil, as Mohammed told us that this area was famous for producing fossils, which the many shops and signs along the highway would attest to.

As we were just about to enter the car, the owner ran up to me and tried to make me a new offer. He wrote a number, which I think was between 1100 and 1300 dirhams on a sheet of paper and pointed at my pants that I was wearing. He told me that the offer was for the cactus fibre carpet I had liked and that he would take credit card and the price included shipping. It didn't surprise me that my pants became part of the negotiation as I had been aware that it was common to use articles of clothing in negotiations in Morocco. I had been told that if you wear a baseball cap in Fes, people will offer to exchange a fez cap for your baseball cap. I don't know what I was thinking, but I thought he was going to give me that much money and the carpet for my pants. Since I hadn't seen any pants like the ones I was wearing (pants that had zippers to convert to shorts when needed), I had thought perhaps these kind of pants were very valuable here. In return, I wrote a higher number, which he stared at in a confused manner and said okay. The whole time Felix was trying to tell me not to buy the carpet as he had also had enough of this negotiating and felt we were being ripped off, but was silenced by the owner. It was only after we shook hands on the deal that I realized I was to pay him the money along with my pants in exchange for the carpet. I felt so bad and was very embarrassed about the misunderstanding. He didn't seem very happy with me but accepted the mistake. I took his business card advertisement to make him feel better.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 2)

After a another short drive, we passed through the Draâ Valley and the town of Agdz. I had contacted a Couchsurfer in Agdz before our voyage, but didn't think I would be in the area. The Draâ River, flowing from the Atlas Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, cutting across Southern Morocco, is Morocco's longest river. The valley it carved now contains important population centres in South Morocco. Along the river there were lush fields of green, accompanied by a wide swath of a dense, dark green palm jungle maintained by the residents of the valley for the production of dates. It was an amazing sight to see the thick canopy of the palm trees against a barren and dusty background. The villages and old, abandoned kasbahs were located behind the palm trees, climbing up the shallower walls of the valley below tall, rocky cliffs.

After leaving the Valley, there was not much to see, as there were no significant water sources for a long while. At one point, Mohammed pointed to a house in a tiny village we passed and told us he was born there. Mohammed got into a long discussion of Islam, as well as Iraq and the US invasion with Felix as he was from the US. He explained to Felix that Iraq actually had a good quality of life, health care and education before the invasion, but American propaganda made it look like a horrible place. He told us that other countries the US did not invade are just as bad, if not worse than Iraq. As an example, he told us that in Morocco, anyone, especially Berbers, who speak against the King would be flown to a prison and had his tongue cut off. He even pointed us to the supposed site of the prison later that day as we passed it. At first Felix believed some of it, but as his opinion of Mohammed became more negative, he started believing less and less of what Mohammed said. In my opinion, the American media did make Iraq look like a much worse place that it actually is. Coming from Canada, I saw many scenes in our media that were not shown in the American media. I had even seen a documentary comparing the American media's coverage of the Iraq war with media coverage from other countries. I had been very surprised to learn that even iconic moments, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, had been staged and strictly controlled by the American military. However, I did not believe everything that Mohammed said, as I am sure the media in Morocco is also very biased and painted Iraq in a more positive manner than it actually is.

Throughout the long drive down the dusty road, we saw many hills, mesas and the deep scars of water erosion from torrential floods that occur once in a while in the area due to the lack of vegetation to catch the water from the rare rainstorm. We stopped once for a flock of sheep that a shepherd was herding off the road as he saw our car approaching. This scene, viewed from inside Mohammed's car, reminded me of scenes from movies such as Babel and Syriana. We stopped in Tazzarine for lunch. I ordered brochette served with fries, as brochette was of the three main things to eat in Morocco, the other two being tagine and couscous. As we ate on the balcony on the second floor, we heard the calls to prayers. Under the scorching midday sun, the town was nearly deserted, only to become even more desolate after the calls to prayers. Even the restaurant staff dissappeared. I felt bad that we were eating during the calls to prayers when everyone else was praying. After enjoying the view of the oasis town from the comfortable couches and pillows, we paid and went downstairs to wait for Mohammed. I realized that Mohammed probably stopped at this town specifically to make it in time to pray, even though he claimed that he was napping.

We passed a few more oasis towns on the way. It was amazing to see a field of green pop up in an otherwise barren landscape, surrounded by a town that would begin and end very abruptly. Leaving such an oasis town, I felt as if we were leaving behind civilization, and I would watch the swatch of green palm trees in the rear window disappear into the distance until we were once again surrounded by an empty rag desert. To pass the time, we made a hobby out of searching for dust devils. Most dust devils, being relatively weak, left only light traces of dust streaming dozens of meters up into the air. It took a certain skill to identify them. However, we did see a few powerful ones, including one that was a few metres wide that sent thick plumes of spinning dust high up into the air. This one passed in front of our car, which prompted Mohammed to roll up the windows. I imagined how much fun it would be to jump into once of those, but then realized I would probably just end up curled up into a ball on the ground as soon as I was inside as I would get sand all over me, in places that I probably didn't even know existed.

Shortly after, we reached a road sign written in Arabic and English. The sign indicated the fork in the road would lead us to Erfoud and Errachidia to the left, and Er-Rissani and Merzouga to the right. The large Arabic letters on the sign, the dusty road and terrain around us, and the palm trees of yet another oasis town in the background really made me feel like I was someplace very exotic. We took the right fork, and stopped at a gas station to refuel. We also bought a few bottles of water to drink and to use for the night in the desert. While Mohammed was fuelling, I took a look around at the landscape. It was exactly like something out of a movie. It was blindingly bright as the landscape had turned much lighter in colour. There was some sand drifting in the breeze, and the mud buildings stood in the midst of numerous palm trees feeding off of the water from the oasis.

We passed through a town with a pretty gate, which we were told is a very famous town as it was the birthplace of one of the famous rulers in Morocco. Throughout the trip, Mohammed had been telling us interesting facts about Morocco. One of the interesting things I learnt is that Morocco has a unique style of minarets. All of the minarets in Morocco were square shaped. They were pink in colour, decorated with painted green and white sections, and had a balcony at he top covered by a small domed pavilion. After learning this, I noticed that every single minaret in Morocco followed this basic style and had a very distinct architectural shape and style to it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 1)

We woke up in time for a quick walk to the pâtisserie we saw last night on our stroll. The shop was very simple, with concrete walls, a scale to weigh the pastries, and a simple counter with a few trays of food, some with flies crawling on them. We picked up a few interesting looking breads and pastries for a very cheap price and ate them back at the hotel. At 8am, Mohammed showed up. After loading our gear into his car, we were off for a two day trip to the Sahara Desert. We agreed to take a southern route to Merzouga and a northern route back to see some different sights along the way. Although we had the choice of visiting Zagora for a lower price, we decided to visit Merzouga as it came highly recommended from nearly everyone we met. From what we had heard, Zagora was a town on the southern edge of the Draâ Valley, past which is the rocky rag desert which had only a few small dunes. Merzouga, on the other hand, had some enormous sand dunes which were supposed to be like the ones in the movies.

Our first stop was on a mountain road close to Ouarzazate. Mohammed stopped the car by a curve in the road where he told us we can get a very nice view. As we stepped out of the car and closed the doors, we noticed the car started up again and slowly drove off! We were scared that this was the plan all along, that Mohammed would steal our stuff and dump us in the middle of a desert to give him enough time to escape! After exchanging some nervous glances with each other, we decided to just enjoy the view and hope he doesn't drive away. However, Felix and I were interrupted by the sight of two men, dressed in the traditional robes and headscarfs were sprinting toward from a small mud brick building on the hill above the road. "Are they running toward us?" I asked uncomfortably. Felix responded "... I .... think so..." As you can imagine, we were quite confused and uncomfortable again, as we were standing on a deserted mountain road in the rocky desert of Southern Morocco, with our driver driving off with our gear in his car, and two men running at us full force from a small mud shack on a hill.

We just stood there as the men approached. As they did, we noticed that they were carrying lizards. It turns out that the the men displayed lizards that they catch in the deserts to passing tourists in hopes of getting a few dirhams out of the process. They were quite nice and showed us a chameleon and some spiny-tailed lizards, which had fat bodies and wide, segmented spiny tails. One of the lizards was obviously dead, which they did not realize until after showing it to us. The man looked stunned for a few seconds, then reassured us that is was sleeping and tried to explain that the lizard was a baby who needed his sleep, even though it was the same size as the others. He even petted the dead lizard to try to complete the illusion. The dead body just bounced a bit in response.

After taking some photos with us and putting lizards on us, they asked for a tip. When we asked how much, they said 50 dirhams. I knew this was too much, and luckily, I remembered that I didn't have much money left in my wallet as I carry most of my spending money in a hidden money pouch. I opened my wallet to show them it was empty, but to my dismay, there was a 50 dirham bill sitting right there. We stared each other for a few speechless seconds, then he pointed and nodded his head, saying "... yeah, 50 dirham." I quickly withdrew my wallet, and Felix and I both handed them 10 dirham and started walking toward Mohammed's car, which we were relieved to find parked a bit up the road. Although they followed us to ask for more money, Mohammed intercepted them and seemed to have a friendly chat. He claims that he parked the car up a bit to move it out of the way of the traffic. We are pretty sure that these were his friends and that they had an agreement for him to stop there with tourists. Felix was visibly angry at Mohammed and told him never to do that again.

Before heading off again, we enjoyed the view of the valley and took some more photos. One can see hills all around the area, rising into rocky cliffs. The terrain was dry and rocky, and had a dusty reddish brown tinge to it. There were some small but scattered plants on the hills. In the valley, one can see a few small towns and villages surrounding patches of green fields and palm trees. These were oasis towns. Although I was very excited to see my first oasis town, these turned out to be extremely common in Morocco, and other than towns surrounding three small rivers and streams, these were the only significantly inhabited places there.

A bit further into the drive, we stopped for another view of the gorges in the area. We saw a deep gash in the earth forming steep cliffs. We did not see any water, but can imagine that any rains in the area must form torrential flows as there were no plants or other obstacles to slow the flow of water. Mohammed mentioned that this was the "Grand Canyon of Morocco." We also noticed interesting rock formations as we drove. In this particular area, any hills or changes in elevation was composed of distinct layers of rocks. The rocks of the different layers all looked the same, but it was stunning to see not a single smooth hill. The layers were so distinct that the edge of each layer looked as if someone had built a rock wall there that had just begun to crumble. The entire landscape were made of slightly slanting horizontal lines, as if some cartographer had drawn close-together lines on the terrain to mark the altitude.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ouarzazate - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 6)

Arriving back at Mohammed's car, we noticed that he was nowhere to be found. After about five or ten minutes, Mohammed appeared and we were on our way back. I hope that we did not interrupt him if he was praying, as Southern Morocco is quite strict in its Islamic culture, with most of the people heeding the five calls to prayers each day.

On the way back, we stopped on a hill to watch the sunset in the barren rag desert. It was a beautiful sight. Below us were some scattered villages and green fields in a vast, brown rocky expanse. There were hills and mesas casting spectacular shadows across the landscape.

On the way back, Mohammed suddenly pulled over in a town and told us he will be back. After he left, the radio that he had on was suddenly interrupted, and the chanting of the calls to players were broadcast over the radio. All around us, we can hear the calls to prayers being broadcast through loudspeakers from the scattered minarets in the town. Hearing the calls to prayers for the first time is a powerful experience. It feels that all of society is united in the power of prayer, which is omnipresent in the towns and media outlets when the appropriate time comes. Soon after the calls to prayers ended, Mohammed returned, and we were on our way back again.

Passing through the main part of Ouarzazate, we had to take a bridge to the section of town our hotel is in. This bridge crossed a wide, but mostly dry riverbed. It was built as a raised dike, with stubby painted concrete pilings marking the road. A car could easily drive between them and off the bridge. We drove across it slowly, as this bridge was shared by many townspeople strolling around town. For some reason this bridge reminded me of some places in China I had been in, adding to the feel that we were very far away from home.

After being dropped off, we told Mohammed that we accept his offer of taking us to Merzouga for 2000 dirhams, and paid an additional 600 dirhams each for a one night trek and camping trip into the desert. Although we realize this price was probably a bit high, we didn't really feel like negotiating as we did not know what the fair price was, and we thought they needed the money more than we do anyway. We gave Mohammed a 50 dirham tip along with the payment, which he didn't look at and just stuffed into his pockets. Later on, Felix and I were talking about Mohammed. I wondered if Mohammed even know we tipped him, but Felix was sure he did, and that "he'll look at it tonight and smile a bit." I am always cautious and suspicious, so I thought Mohammed was definitely ripping us off. Felix had a much more positive view of Mohammed. Well, that was going to change drastically in the next few days.

That night, we had dinner at the hotel as it was already quite late and we just wanted to eat as soon as possible. We paid 100 dirham each for a full meal with tagine as the main dish. Although it was a reasonably priced compared to Europe, it was still overpriced, as can be expected in any hotel. During dinner in the courtyard, under palm fruit trees, I took the time to enjoy the stars in the cloudless sky above. There was little light pollution in Ouarzazate, and I had not see this many stars in the sky for a while now. I enjoyed seeing the Milky Way so visible, draped across the sky like silk. After dinner, we took a quick stroll in the streets. We were surprised to find that everyone in town seemed to be out. The streets were filled with people and activity. It turns out that in Morocco, most people come out after sunset because it is much too hot during the day. We had arrived at the airport at exactly the wrong time, during their long noon siesta when all the stores are closed because everyone is asleep at home.

The streets were dusty and the weather was still quite hot, but it had cooled to a bearable temperature. Southern Morocco is still surprisingly traditional. Nearly everyone was wearing the same outfit. The women had covered heads and wore long robes. The men wore flowing grey or light blue robes, sandals, and many of them sported long beards and the traditional Muslim caps. Walking down the street, I made a mental note of a bakery which I would stop at tomorrow morning for breakfast before heading off to Merzouga. I also bought a cheap nail clipper off a street vendor selling wares from a tarp for 3 dirhams. This was a horrible purchase as the nail clippers, which I would use for the rest of the trip, pinched my nails more often than clipping them.

After a cramped shower, we went to bed. From our window, we can still see people walking up and down the main street in this section of town. A Exxon Mobil gas station was also visible from our window. What I found amusing about this is that in English, the 'o' in Mobil is red with the rest of the word blue. Similarly, in Arabic, we noticed one connected letter was painted in red while the rest of the word was blue. I found it amusing they forced the same colour scheme into the Arabic version of their name and didn't spend the extra effort to come up with a more suitable logo.

Aït Benhaddou - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 5)

On our first drive through the South Moroccan countryside, we got a glimpse of the barren rocky desert. Mohamed informed us that there were two words for desert in Arabic, "rag," which is the rocky desert we are travelling through, and "erg," which is the sandy desert we plan on visiting. Along the way, we see small streams surrounded by green fields, trees, and small villages in an otherwise barren landscape. The terrain was a dull reddish brown colour, scattered with rocks. In the distance, one can see cliffs, hills, and mountains. Every so often, there would be a road marker that looked like a white tombstone on the side of the road with a coloured top below which is painted in black the number indicating the distance, and the Arabic and English names of the place it was indicating. These appeared regularly and seemed to alternate among the next few destinations on the highway.

We stopped once to look at a rock hill with three colours, which Mohamed explained to us was very rare and caused by the presence of three different minerals and metals. We passed many small villages and saw many mud buildings, some crumbled and abandoned, and some well maintained and new. At least a few times we passed small villages on hills which we thought might have been Aït Benhaddou.

Finally, we stopped in a small village, which we were told is the new village of Aït Benhaddou. Mohammed gave us directions on how to get to the old village, and said he was going to go spend the time at a friend's house. We told him that we would watch the sunset from the hill and agreed to meet later.

Walking through town and passing a few gift shops, we reached the banks of a dried up river. I had read that if there is water in the river, one must be very careful not to step in the water due to parasites that will burrow in you skin. Luckily for us, the river was completely dry, and to get to the old site of Aït Benhaddou, all we had to do was walk across the dried riverbed. The view from this side was breathtaking. Following the banks of the river, there were green fields, bushes, and date palms. Rising above it was a collection of majestic kasbahs forming a magnificent ksar that covers a quarter of a steep hill rising out of the rag desert. Near the top, there is a cliff and a crumbled wall following the upper lip of the rock face. At the very top of the hill was a badly crumbled tower which used to function as a granary.

After walking across the dried river, we entered the gates into old Aït Benhaddou. There are currently still ten families that call old Aït Benhaddou home. We spent our time exploring the village, climbing ups and down stairs, going from roof to roof via connected passageways, and exploring small nooks and crannies. We found a few donkey stables, a few family homes charging admission for a tour, and found that most of the families that still live there now also own small gift stores. We chose not to visit anyone's home since we were afraid that it would be too touristy, but in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see anyway. In any case, we were able to explore some abandoned kasbahs which used to serve as family homes. As forewarned, there were many childern acting as touts. We ignored them and decided not to have them show us around, but again, in retrospect, for a measly 10 dirhams, perhaps they would have show us some secrets of the ksar. However, that was not guaranteed, as we have had very varying experiences with official and unofficial guides in Morocco.

Following a path leading out of the upper side of the village, we came to the top of the cliff we saw from below. There were two boys drumming on tin cans, and as they were making quite a catchy beat, we were tempted to give them some money, but we were out of change. The view from the top was amazing. At this time, the sun was low in the sky, bathing everything in a reddish orange glow. It seemed very appropriate on the reddish brown earth and the similar coloured buildings that seemed to grow out of the earth full of life before ending its life cycle and crumbling back to dust. From the top of this hill, we can see that we were surrounded by vast stretches of rocky hills and plains, well weathered into repeating patters due to millenia of erosion, untouched by humans. We also climbed around to take a look into the collapsed granary, which by now is hardly recognizable. We noted that there were different compartments in the structure which was probably used to store different foodstuff or used by different families.

After sitting there for a while watching the colours change with the setting sun, we decided we should not keep Mohamed for too long, so we decided to head back. On our way down, I noticed clear water damage on the buildings, especially around the gutters. In some places the external mud covering was washed away to reveal the compacted straw and the mud bricks, which were also showing clear damage. I wonder how much longer Aït Benhaddou is going to last, seeing that no new residents are moving in to the old village, and the ksar will be slowly ground into mud and dust with each passing wind and rainstorm.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tifoultout - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 4)

Mohammed came back at 4pm to pick us up. He had an old tan Mercedes, a car from a previous era. Scrambling into the car, we found some religious knick-knacks around the car and a covering that looked like a faded carpet on the dashboard. We had a full evening of exploring to do since Mohammed was going to take us to a few different sites in the area.

Our first stop was at the kasbah in Tifoultout, one of the residences of the famous Glaoui family, the head of the Glaoua tribe. Their power peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were involved in the overthrow of at least two different Sultans of Morocco. Walking through the front gate, a man sitting on the side took 10 dirhams for admission in exchange for a ticket which says "tea included." It turns out that the Glaoui family had not held onto their power over the past few decades, and the occupants of this particular kasbah had been reduced to charging 10dh for tourists to wander through their home and to serve them tea.

The kasbah was painted pink as with all of the other buildings in the area. Many of the walls were worn and collapsing, while other walls had brand-new sections and decorative elements which seemed like they were already crumbling. We eventually found that all throughout southern Morocco, there are crumbling kasbahs like this one. Almost all of the buildings in the area are built using mud with straw. With each rain, the buildings get washed away a bit. As soon as a building is worn too much to maintain, the families just build a new house to live in. Luckily for them, it rains only about twice a year in the area so a house can last quite a long time with proper maintenance.

As the kasbah was built on a hill, the view from the roof terrace was spectacular. One can see the hills of the Atlas in the distance, and the town below, a cluster of mud buildings ranging from brown to pink. There were a few minarets of mosques breaking up away from the rest of the single and double storied buildings to form dramatic peaks in seemingly random parts of town. The town surrounded an oasis of lush green fields and full, healthy date palms in an otherwise dusty and barren landscape. From the top of the hill, we saw a few people going around town, and a caravan of donkeys carrying bales of hay passed below us. The top of the kasbah was home to many storks, each family with a giant nest of many sticks weaved together. As we walked up to them to observe them, they seemed just as curious of us as we were of them.

To commemorate our first main stop of the trip, we took a combined self portrait. We stood by each other and held our cameras out, taking our photos together at the same time. I'll have one version, and Felix will have the other. After that, we ducked indoors to their main lobby to have some tea. It was much cooler and darker inside. The floor and walls were covered with a patchwork of ornate cloths and rugs, many of them quite faded and worn. We sat on a couch in front of a table covered in what seems to be many layers of cloth. A man started making us some tea in an ornate silver pot. As we waited, Mohammed introduced to us the owner of the property, a member of the Glaoui family. We noticed that Mohammed appeared to know the man. We wondered if this was a tourist attraction at all, or if he was just trying to get our money somehow by showing us his friends home. Eventually, we found out that since Mohammed takes a lot of tourists around, he has gotten very familiar with many of the people these sites and had deals with them.

This would be our first taste of Moroccan mint tea, which would become the beverage of choice for every single meal we would have in Morocco. Morning, midday, and night, we, along with everyone around us, would drink mint tea. The connection between mint tea and Morocco became so strong in my mind that long after leaving Morocco, the taste of mint tea would immediately conjure up visions of sitting at small restaurants in the dusty streets in Moroccan towns, watching as people and donkeys walk past. Our driver told us that mint tea was known as "Berber whiskey" since the Berbers make it so strong that it packs the punch of whiskey in terms of taste. It also looks surprisingly like a shot of strong whiskey when sitting in the small glasses. Moroccan mint tea is made by boiling green gunpowder tea for a while and then adding mint and sugar near the end of the process to flavour the tea. The tea is then poured from a large distance above the glass to create a small foam head, although this isn't done as often in the cheaper restaurants we ate in. The tea is dense and strong in all flavours including sugar. I liked this very much as I usually enjoy my tea extra strong.

After tea, we set off in the direction of Aït Benhaddou. After a short drive, we made a quick stop at the Atlas Film Studios, the most famous of the numerous studios in the area. Films that have been filmed there include major Hollywood blockbusters such as Kundun and Gladiator. Seeing that the admission price was 60 dirhams, we decided not to take the tour and continued on our way. Once again, we noticed that Mohammed seemed to know the people at that tourist stop quite well.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ouarzazate - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 3)

The ride in the old rickety turboprop was very different than the jet ride. As we travelled south, the terrain became drier, and the sky contained only a few scattered clouds. We could see dried riverbeds and shallow lakes below supporting clusters of small towns and fields in what was otherwise a flat expanse of dusty, yellow earth. After about an hour into the flight, the earth grew suddenly hilly and the High Atlas range loomed ahead. It was amazing to see a line of clouds in an otherwise clear sky against the northern edge of the Atlas Mountains. There were swirls and tendrils of clouds reaching into the range, but quickly trailed off and the sky because cloudless again. The haze that was visible since our take off from Madrid was still around, enshrouding the Atlas, obscuring the view into the valleys between the peaks.

As we crossed the mountains, we noticed that we were losing altitude and getting closer to the jagged peaks below with each passing minute. As we descended, we got a close view of the magnificent sweeping red cliffs and hills speckled with patches of snow and a few small, blue glacial lakes that stood in striking contrast with the dusty red terrain. After a few dramatic bumpy turns and close brushes with the cliffs below, a vast, flat landscape was revealed before us. The parched landscape was criss-crossed with dried river beds and patches of small, greenish brown plants. Immediately after the final cliffs, we passed over the Atlas Film Studios, which at first I thought was some kind of historical kasbah. Immediately after, we touched down in the small desert town of Ouarzazate. From the plane, the town looked empty and dusty, with many similar mud and concrete buildings, painted and otherwise, clustered together.

Jumping down from the plane, we were greeted by a blast of scorching dry air in a cloudless sky. I noted that the sun we almost directly overhead, so that I cast a very small shadow. I immediately took photos of me at the airport with the Moroccan flag and the signs in Arabic and French. As we walked in the door, we came across a small desk where most people were walking past. Seeing that the desk was marked "Customs," we decided to get stop there. It seems that we were the only people on the flight that are entering customs through Ouarzazate and not some other Moroccan city. The process was strict but relatively smooth except for one issue. Apparently the Moroccan customs needed a contact address of where we were staying before allowing us to pass. Luckily, Felix had a tour book with him which he had been flipping through, we so pointed to one of the listed accommodations we were planning on checking out. After some paperwork and receiving two stamps in our passport, we were finally let into the country.

Entering into the airport and picking up our bags, we found the airport deserted other than a floor sweeper and a security officer. I had counted on finding a tourist stall with maps at the airport from my previous backpacking trip experiences, but I suppose this isn't Europe, so a quick search through the airport yielded nothing. We also found what looked like a few stores and a currency exchange or bank, but they were all closed. Walking outside, we were greeted with the midday sun of an extremely hot and dry day, a few signs in Arabic and another officer talking with someone with a bicycle. At this time, we were at a loss for what to do. The airport was deserted, we didn't have any Moroccan money, and we couldn't understand anything around us. At this time, Felix and I discovered that we had very different travel preferences. Whereas I am most stimulated when I get into difficult situations and find creative ways to work myself out of them, Felix liked it when things are straightforward and all planned out. Felix was visibly distraught, and I was at a loss of ideas. After about ten minutes of wandering around, sitting around, and staring at each other, one of the police officers approached us, and in a combination of motioning and simple French, he told us he would call a cab for us. Although I am always a bit suspicious of strangers in unknown places, especially if they offer us a car which I'm sure we would not be able to identify as a taxi or not, we really didn't have an idea of what else we could do, so we agreed. We waited outside in the heat with the company of some Arabic elevator music until the car came for us.

The car that arrived was a bit beat up... well, nearly all cars in Morocco were pretty beat up compared to the cars in North America. We piled into the car, and after a few words between the driver and the officer in Arabic, pointing at the hotel listing we told the customs officer we were going to, and handing the driver on an agreed-upon ten Euro bill, we were off. Whatever relief we felt was soon gone however, as our driver suddenly pulled over on the side of the road after a few minutes of driving. We saw a beat-up red car, obviously not a cab, pull up right behind us, and our driver told us to get out. As we were removing our stuff from the car, the driver of our car and the driver of the other mysterious car exchanged greetings.

We were told to get into the other red car, and seeing no good alternatives, we decided to play along. After we got in, we discovered that this was a sales pitch. The new driver, who introduced himself as Mohammed, spoke English reasonably well and offered to drive us around. It turns out this is quite common in Morocco. If a foreigner gets in a taxi, at some point in the trip a salesman would appear. By the time we reached our hotel, we agreed to be picked up in a few hours for an evening tour of Aït Benhaddou that would cost us 300 dirhams. We couldn't resist, since Aït Benhaddou was the reason that I decided to extend my trip as south as Ouarzazate.

Our hotel was pretty good, with the exception of a tiny bathroom and shower. We were a bit sketched out by the driver walking us in, chatting with the receptionist, and telling us that we get a discount because he had taken us there. We eventually found out that it was very common in Morocco for people to receive commissions if they brought customers, although we were a bit worried about it at the beginning. In the hotel room, Felix discovered that he had lost his tour book. This was the most stressful moment of the trip for both of us, as we were in a strange land using an unfamiliar language without a guide of any form, not knowing how to get money and where to get food. Although we did get into similar situations in the future, we became more accustomed to it as the trip went on, and I became better at appearing confident in uncertain situations to comfort my travel mates. After a quick break, and getting some money exchanged from the hotel at a cost, we decided to head into town to get some lunch and to exchange some more money.

Standing on the street, we waved a cab down. When we went to enter, we were surprised to find two men already in the cab. After some looks of confusion and some motioning, we realized that we were supposed to get in with them, so we did. We just hoped that the driver wasn't lying when he nodded when we said "Ouarzazate centre-ville." After a short drive, we stopped, and surprisingly, two girls entered the car! There was a man and a girl in the front seat, and the other man and the girl in the back, with us squeezed in the middle. After starting up again, the girls said something in Arabic that sounded like they were dismayed and suggesting something obvious, which caused up to stop again. After some jostling, the two girls ended up in front, with us squeezed between the two other men in the back. We all exchanged awkward smiles as they spoke Arabic and we spoke English.

After crossing a mostly dried river and making a few drop-offs for the other passengers, we were dropped off in a wide, dusty street. The street was deserted and all the stores appeared to be closed. All the buildings were painted pink, which appeared to be the norm in southern Morocco. In town, we exchanged some money at the bank, bought some bottled water, and had our first meal in Morocco which consisted of some Berber and kofta tagine. We discovered that all meals in Morocco are served with this delicious flatbread which had the texture of a very dense loaf of bread. We also tried to rent a car to visit the desert to the south. However, the only cars we can find were stick-shifts. We made a mental note to learn how to drive stick-shifts when we return from the trip, and decided to shell out the money for a cab to take us to the desert. After all, if we were so close, we cannot skip an opportunity to visit a section of the world famous and very mystical sounding Sahara Desert.

After lunch, we returned to Ouarzazate to await Mohammed to take us to Aït Benhaddou. It took us quite a while to figure out how to return to our hotel, but we discovered that the Moroccans have the most ingenious system of mass transit. It turns out that for all travel within a town or city, you hail a petite taxi, which is extremely cheap. A ride in town will cost you only a few dirhams. To travel between towns, you go the grand taxi stop of the town, where taxis are awaiting departure for the surrounding towns as well as some farther cities. The only catch is that you pay for a seat out of a cramped five or six in the car. Departure times are completely unpredictable since the taxi waits until it is filled before leaving. Since we were in a hurry, we agreed to pay a bit extra and be driven back to our hotel in our own private grand taxi. On our way back, we made a stop at a street corner, where we were told we were picking up a "friend." The friend, after gathering that I was from Canada, showed us a Canada pin on his hat and told me he had friends in Canada. What followed was a sales pitch of a tour to the desert that lasted all the way back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, the receptionist gave Felix his book back. He said that Mohammed had came back while we were out to return the book we had left in the first cab from the airport. Seeing that not everyone was there to take advantage of us, having just been fed, finally having some local currency we can spend, and feeling that we are starting to get a bearing on the area we are in, we started feeling better and finally started enjoying the trip again.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Morocco - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 2)

Getting on the plane, we heard announcement in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic, which got us quite excited. Taking off, we saw the farmland drop quickly below us. The view was not that exciting as it was hazy that day, giving everything below a dull, grey look. Eventually, I noticed were were over water... then land again. I was excited to think that this was the first time I was over African or Arabic airspace. At first, the landscape below looked green and hilly and I was somewhat disappointed at how similar this looked to Europe. However, as we descended into Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, I noticed that the earth around us looked drier than when we took off, and had a brownish tinge to it. I could not see any cities, and only saw some farms and small buildings. I was also unable to see the coast. It turns out that the airport is quite a ways inland away from the city. I was also quite excited to fill out the Moroccan immigration cards, which were in French and Arabic. This was the first time I had to fill out any kind of paperwork written in Arabic or had seen Arabic being used as an official language.

As our plane had arrived a bit late we had to hurry to find our next plane. The airport felt large and efficient, but its age was obviously showing in its yellow walls and design. At one point Felix was certain that we were supposed to go through a gate, and just as we walked out the automatic door, I turned to go back in and dragged him with me. It was a good thing that I did since that was the door exiting the security area and if the door had closed behind us we would have had to go through security again. After some more searching and passing through yet another metal detector, we found our gate. Looking outside, the landscape looked dusty and the old bare yellow walls of the airport made me feel like I was in another time period. Still, there were some modern architectural elements to the airport which brought me back to reality. Seeing the red Moroccan star against a green background, the portraits of the King, and letters written in Arabic, I realize that I was in a very different part of the world.

Most of the passengers in the waiting room appeared to be foreign, some looking like businessmen in suits, some looked like travellers, and there was a Caucasian family who looked like they were on vacation. I had also wondered how many people were going to Ouarzazate because of the movie studios there. The Caucasian family looked so out of place I wondered if one of them was a famous actor I didn't know and was brining their family with them on an extended shoot in the area. Because of the people in the waiting room, this place did not feel exotic at all, and I was afraid that with the pace at which the homogeneous global culture seems to be spreading, Morocco would not be much different than any other country. Finding that our plane had been delayed, I took the opportunity to use the bathroom, which I thankfully found very clean for a developing country.

After what seemed to be a very long wait and delay, we were led down a dusty ramp and onto a bus. After a short drive around some large jet liners, we saw we were approaching a small turboprop with the old Royal Air Maroc insignia painted on it. Boarding the plane, we noticed that is was obviously old and had seen better days. Some panels seemed lose, with corners jutting out, the carpet and upholstery was old and peeling in areas. It gave a very cozy and adventurous feel to the plane. The door to the cockpit was open and through it we can see workers loading our bags into the forward cargo hold, down the middle of which was a path from the cockpit to the rest of the fuselage. We kept an eye on the bags being tossed in the cargo hold netting, and were relieved when we saw our bags being loaded.

The take off was one of the most violent and steep take offs I have ever experienced. The acceleration pushed me deep into my seat. I was surprised that such an old plan had such power in it as I had been in much newer turboprops and jets that had never demonstrated such power. Perhaps we had a short runway and needed a steep climb for whatever reason. The ground fell quickly below us and before we know it, we were high up in the sky again. Throughout the violent climb I was afraid that plane would disintegrate under all that pressure, especially after seeing the condition the plane was in. The rest of the flight was comfortable. The announcements were in Arabic and French, so I was able to understand them. We were served drinks in cups with the Royal Air Maroc insignia and some Arabic lettering imprinted in them. I had very much enjoyed seeing this exotic combination. The Royal Air Maroc insignia evoked old days when transportation was difficult and I couldn't help but think I was in one of those old adventure movies such as Indiana Jones.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 1)

I woke up at 6:20am. It was just before sunrise, and the sky was dark blue. When I looked over at Felix, he started to stir in his sleeping bag. We were both awake, before our alarms went off. We were excited and ready for the day. This will mark the true start of my adventure, the flight that will put me just south-west of the Mediterranean so that I can start my journey - my goal of a land crossing of Europe along the Mediterranean Ocean from west to east. We packed up quickly and quietly as to not disturb our hosts. After the usual morning routine, we were ready to leave. We left the key in our room and passed through the corridor were we can see the other Couchsurfer peacefully asleep on the couch. Heading out the door, after one last mental check, we pulled the door closed, which automatically locked itself behind us.

Exiting the building, we see that the action had already started in the streets. The day was reaching full brightness, some of the early commuters were heading to work, and some stores were opening up. The day was already warm and humid, and we can tell that it was going to be a full-blown summer day ahead. We found our way to the subway, already bustling but thankfully not crowded yet. After we arrived at the airport, we found that we needed to take another bus to an outlying terminal, T4. The bus drove on what looked like a deserted raised highway, with the surrounding land empty, dusty, and of a brownish-yellow colour. There were industrial-looking buildings once in a while. The bus was modern, air-conditioned, comfortable, and clean, a stark contrast to the landscape we saw outside. The bus took one last ramp curving right on a bridge, and we saw the terminal ahead of us. It was a large silver building with glass panes. It seemed new and looked like work was still being done on it.

Pulling up in front of the airport, we hopped off and went inside. It was a modern airport of a standard design. We looked for the Iberia Airlines section. The first leg, operated by Iberia Airlines will take us to Casablanca, where we will board a local turboprop plane to take us rest of the way to Ouarzazate. Seeing the exotic looking Iberia and Royal Air Maroc airline symbols, I felt that we were on the verge of a great adventure. Checking in at the counter, I was slightly dismayed that I had to check my bag. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that we were not in the US or on a flight operated by US Airlines, as I've had horrible experiences of lost luggage nearly every time I fly through Philadelphia. However, I was still nervous and skeptical since I wasn't sure how reliable Moroccan airports were.

Passing through security, with me holding the top detachable portion of my bag, we found that were were still quite early. The airport had a large multi-story shopping mall, and we found a small café to have breakfast at. I had an overpriced Spanish version of a panini. Nonetheless, it was a warm breakfast and a welcome start to what I'm sure will be a full day. Madrid had been an introduction, a staging area of sorts, and soon it would be the start of my long-awaited adventure.

After breakfast, we exited Spanish customs. I was thrilled to get another stamp in my passport. Similarly, I was looking forward to the stamps I would collect in the next few weeks passing through Morocco, Gibraltar, and back into the European Union. I have always found it thrilling to receive a stamp in my passport. It is tangible proof that I had been somewhere and that it was not just a beautiful dream. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, we followed signs and arrows toward our terminal. I found it cool that each sign had an electronic section displaying the estimated time until our destination in number of minutes which turned out to be surprisingly accurate. Arriving at our terminal, we sat and waited, watching the planes and rolling hills outside through the glass walls and chatted with each other.

The terminal was empty at first. There were rows of seats. We took turns going to the bathroom, taking a drink from the water fountain, and just walking around the area. We were restless. I noticed fun, complicated sign holders made up twisting tubes bolted together. I noticed there were many large bolts in the design of the airport, giving it an interesting, almost industrial, but clean and bright feel to it. Eventually, the waiting area gathered a small crowd. I was staring at the electronic boarding sign intensely as I saw the plane finally arrive and the passengers dismount.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 3

We spent another day walking around and exploring Madrid. In the morning, we headed to the lucotorio on Cuesta de San Vicente. When we made it to the Palace, we were disappointed to find that we had just missed the changing of the guards by a few minutes. The walk today would take us around parts of Old Madrid that we had missed the previous day, to Parque del Retiro, and to some newer parts of town. By late afternoon, we had explored the Plaza de España surrounded with its old, plain, but somehow classy skyscrapers, and the outside of the Egyptian temple with its pond. This area offered a nice view to the part of town down the hill, the area that were were staying in. The soft orange light provided by the setting sun was beautiful on the walls of the Egyptian Temple and the pastel walls of the tall skyscrapers surrounding the Plaza.

Throughout the day, we had walked all around Madrid, through a Chinese and a Caribbean neighbourhood, which looked quit poor and run down. We also walked around a large modern art museum, with some giant kinetic outdoor art installations which demonstrated waves. This building had a large protruding red roof reflecting the cars in the street below it, making it look as if the cars were flying in the sky. We tried to take pictures of it, but the contrast between the roof and sky was just too large and our digital photos would come out either too dark or too bright. And of course, throughout the day, we made sure to stop for some beers to refresh us and push us ever onwards. For lunch, we sat at a small bar on a plaza outside a large modern museum. We ordered some bread topped with Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico to try these Spanish specialities. I found I loved these just as much as prosciutto, one of my favourite foods. This bar, however, charged an extra euro for every item on the menu for sitting outside - once again confirming my view that nothing is free in European restaurants.

After our walk around Parque del Retiro, we visited the Botanical gardens with its wide array of different plants. The things that impressed me the most were a collection of different wine grapes, different herbs, and some plants that looked like giant chives complete with giant clusters of flowers. I requested a photo with these plants, and I got two. The first one had one of the giant blooms replacing my head in the photo. We ended the day with a well earned rest and a long conversation in the square in front of Museo del Prado. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to go in to visit its galleries. Well, this is a regret that we leave for Madrid. As my mom always tells me, it is good to leave some regrets for everywhere you visit, as it will draw you back again in the future.

When we returned to apartment, we found another couchsurfer there. He was from Florida and told us stories of him travelling the coast of the US by sleeping on the beach with his sleeping bag. He said that at least once, he awoke to someone standing over him and watching him sleep. One unsettling thing about him was that he had very high praise for pickpockets. He really liked how they work and loved to watch them target people. Perhaps showing your zeal for stealing is not the best quality to display when you're staying the night in a stranger's home.

Since this was our first Couchsurfing experience, we wanted to thank our hosts by taking them to dinner. Unfortunately, Sebastian was nowhere to be seen. In the end, we went to have dinner with Raquel, Adolfo, and the new Couchsufer. Two of Raquel's friend joined us at dinner, and we ended up paying 30 euros each to cover dinner for everyone! We ate on a sidewalk table, where many restaurants seem to be setting up, and plenty to drink, and plenty of seafood and a few Madrid and Spanish specialities.

After dinner, we prepared for bed as we had to get up early for a flight to Ouarzazate, Morocco the next morning. We said good-bye to the host of our first Couchsurfing experience, and reflected on how Couchsurfing is brining people together from all over the world. In our room, we set our alarms and chatted for quite a while, as we were both very excited to be going to a land with a culture completely foreign to us. Before going to sleep, I looked out over the bright lights of Madrid one last time, and using the light from thousands of dim sodium lamps outside far below, I made sure my alarm on my phone was set.

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 5)

By the time we got back to Príncipe Pío, the sun had just about finished setting, and we were hungry. We found a local and busy looking restaurant to get some dinner. Unfortunately for us, we were once again surprised and caught off guard by the lack of English spoken in Spain, and we found that no one at the restaurant spoke English and they did not have an English menu. Luckily, Felix spoke German, and he had picked up his father's old German to Spanish phrasebook while visiting his father in Munich. After much debate and guessing, we discovered that the phrasebook, with a basic dictionary was no match for a typical Spanish menu, with its strange names for foods. When the server came, we just pointed at an item in the menu which appeared to be a dish meant for two people and ordered a cerveza for each of us. Over the next while, we would learn to start any order of food or drink with the word "cerveza."

The dish turned out to be a huge plate of tender, flavourful chunks of beef steak, some potatoes, and the most wonderful form of pepper I have had, later to be identified as a special variety of pepper called Pimentos de Padrón. These tiny Padrón peppers were pan fried in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, becoming very soft, juicy, and tender, some with small charred spots. It turn out this is the only way to prepare these delicate peppers and they are never used as an ingrediant in any other dish. The shape of the peppers was reminiscent of a slightly elongated habañero, and had very thin dark forest green walls. They were very flavourful and savoury, and had a slight sweet taste to them. Some of them were also slightly spicy. This combination of meat, starch, and a new and delicious vegetable was most welcome after a long day of walking and exploring. As a bonus, the beer came with a plate of olives, and as if having the best peppers I've ever tasted wasn't enough, these were the best olives I have ever tasted. These were tender and flavourful and was not sharp like the pickled olives I have previously tried and enjoyed. I loved these olives so much I ate every single one. I later found out that these olives were prepared by a traditional Spanish pickling method, curing them in a solution of white wine, shallots, and other spices.

When we returned to the apartment, we found our Couchsurfing hosts had lit candles all over their apartment and told us that Raquel had forgot to pay the electric bill... again. We spent the rest of the night chatting. It was this night that we picked up a great tip from Sebastian, a French Canadian, to visit Merzouga when in southern Morocco. He had a wonderful time there, and said his experience was surreal, as he had gone from hiking the freezing glacier fields of the high Atlas to trekking the burning heat of the sand dunes of the Sahara in a day. Unfortunately for us, we will not have time to hike in the High Atlas, but we decided we should seriously consider visiting the desert as Sebastian had indicated it was not far from Ouarzazate, our next destination.

Settling into our tiny room for the night, one sleeping on the bed and one sleeping on the floor, we filled up the entire floorspace and made it impossible for any of us to move around. We talked about the adventures we were going to have went to sleep dreaming of exploring the unknown.

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 4)

Along with our beer came a plate of fresh lightly salted potato chips. At first I was afraid that we would be charged for these chips as I'e been charged for many things in Europe that I'm used to getting for free in North America. I've been charged for water (the norm for Europe), ketchup, and other small things. Making me more suspicious was the fact that I read in nearby Portugal they would bring small plates of food to your table and unless you send them back immediately they will charge you for it.

However, we soon found out that night that this was not the case in Spain, and was one of the best things about this country! It turns out that at nearly every single bar or restaurant in Spain, if you order a glass of beer, they will always bring a small plate of food for free with your order! What a wonderful tradition! When you're hungry and looking for a snack during the day, instead of buying an unhealthy snack at a convenience store or fast food place as you would do at home, you would instead pop into the closest bar, order a beer, have a drink and a small plate of delicious and varied food all the while resting and chatting with your friends. Why, it was even common for one to make a dinner out of this arrangement. You can head out at dinner time with your friends, and over the next couple of hours until time for bed, you can pop into a bar, order a beer, receive a plate of whatever tapas they're serving with their beer that day, and move onto the next one when you're done. This makes for a long and leisurely night of hanging out with friends, mingling with people, exploring the neighbourhood and having a variety of different beers and min-courses to drink and eat.

After our beer, and a rather unexciting plate of chips, due to the touristy location of the restaurant, we continued our afternoon of exploring old Madrid refreshed. We walked to Puerta del Sol, the centre of Madrid with its stately white buildings and throngs of people in the squares watching street performers. Taking some photos of the statue of the bear climbing the madroño tree, the symbol of Madrid, we moved on. Unfortunately, it wasn't until later that we heard about the other main attraction of Sol, the nail that marks the start of the main roads in Spain. Since Madrid is located close to the centre of Spain, there is a spot in Puerta del Sol, Kilometre Zero, from where all the highways in Spain are measured from. These highways, starting from the heart of the city that is the heart of Spain, radiate in all directions to reach the outlying areas of the nation in all directions. It is said that putting your foot down on the nail will ensure a speedy return to Madrid, much like how throwing a coin over your shoulder into the Fontana di Trevi wil ensure a speedy return to Rome.

Continuing our walk, we travelled east along Calle de Acalá. This was a most impressive avenue. Surrounding it are large, impressive, centuries old stone buildings with very expensive looking decorations. Many of the buildings had large oversized statues on the roofs. The noise and smells from the hectic traffic, the chatter from the throngs of people moving in all directions, the heat and humidity of a clear summer day, and the buildings that look like they could have been taken out of a story set in a fantasy land was overwhelming. Looking down the avenue, one could see a long line of stately buildings with humongous overly ornate statues glittering with gold looming over the wide and busy street. Walking down this most impressive avenue, we reached on of the most recognizable symbols of Madrid, the Palacio de Correos y Telecomunicaciones, Madrid's town hall. If you have not seen a picture of it before, you must look it up when you get an opportunity to. It is a large, white symmetrical building, most meticulously decorated, and looks quite medieval and overbearing. Combined with its large fountain with a statue of lions drawing a chariot, it is a most impressive sight to behold. It was here that Felix and I took our first photo together on the trip, a great kick-off to the months of unforgettable experiences to come. Throughout the day, I can't help but wonder how impressive Madrid must have been throughout it's entire history.

At this point, it's getting to be late afternoon, so we decided to start heading back. We walked back along Gran Vía, the widest and most bustling avenue in Madrid. Gran Vía was like a wider and taller, but less historical looking version of Calle de Acalá. Although it had less ornate and taller buildings, there were still many gems of architecture to be observed, the most impressive being the Edificio Metrópolis at the intersection of Gran Vía and Calle de Acalá.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Old Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 3)

The stretch of road behind the Palace would make a deep impression on me in the next few days. While we were in Madrid, we would travel this stretch often, as it led us to the old town, and also because this is where the closest lucotorio, or cyber-café is. As the first familiar area to me after arriving in Europe for my lengthy trip, it provided me with great comfort.

The street was very steep and took quite a bit of effort to reach the top. The street wasn't narrow or wide, but had a very personal and busy feeling to it. It was lined with trees, and to your left as you ascend the hill, there were old buildings with faded paint chips flaking off of their uneven walls. Signs and wires were protruding from these buildings. At the bottom of every building were stores, and one can plainly see that this area was not inhabited by the upper class. Of the left, there was a park and a small square of sorts. A brown sandstone wall and some gates separated the street and the park. From the steep bottom of the hill all one would see are the tall walls with some stairs ascending to the park as the ground under the park was filled in as to not slope. Around half way up was our favourite lucotorio in Madrid. It was very cheap, less than an euro for an hour, and the plain tables, chairs and old computers indicated a no-frills, down to earth place for basic Internet access. The top of the street was crowned with a wide bridge carrying a perpendicular street and pedestrian walkways. The bridge was so wide that the street seems to disappear and become engulfed by a long, dark tunnel. After climbing the stairs on the side of the bridge, to your right, you see the Royal Palace, opera house, and various other items of interest as you've now just arrived at the west edge of old Madrid. This street, Cuesta de San Vicente became etched in my memory as I still tried to clutch to something familiar in the first few days of my trip.

The first time we took this route, we weren't sure where we were headed. Climbing to the top of the stairs, we were relieved and excited to see that we had arrived on a busy street with what look like a large square to the right, and a beautiful garden just next to us. Walking through the garden, we see our first glimpse of the Palace. It was huge. And beautiful. The white, gray, and blue colour scheme stood out majestically behind the green of the gardens and fountains between us and the palace. The fountains were not very elaborate, with just barely a small spurt of water from the tops of a few pillars with some spherical designs at the top. The area was stately, powerful, and serene all at the same time. As we waked around the Palace, we marvelled at its size and construction. I also enjoyed the square between the Palace and the opera house very much. The view to the opera house was very symmetric, neat, and pleasing. The sky was clear and blue, with just a few billowy clouds drifting slowly across. It was a very beautiful sight.

Walking around old Madrid using the map as a guide, we arrived at Plaza Mayor. We suspected this was something special as we approached. The roads leading us up to the Plaza were crooked in all directions with a hodge-podge of different stone buildings in all different shapes and sizes. As we approach Plaza Mayor, we see a large, straight building cutting across the street ahead of us at an odd angle, constructed with a very bold, intentional, repeating pattern of windows, roof peaks, and large arches for people to walk through. Through the arches we can see a clearing filled with people bustling in all different directions. Walking under the arches, we arrive in a large, rectangular square, surrounded by a single enormous building with a very symmetrical repeating pattern of arches, windows, roof peaks, valleys, and balconies. One segment had walls covered in a giant, continuous painting of intricate scenes. A large metal statue of a horseman stands in the centre, and small tent-shaped canopies surround the most of the sides of the square providing a most welcoming shade to countless tables and chairs. We decide to sit at one of these tables to enjoy a cold glass of beer.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Madrid - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 2 (Part 2)

Arriving back at the apartment, we cramped into the tiny elevator together with a short, husky looking, balding Spanish man. As he leaves the elevator, he looks us in the eye, and says "Adiós!" in a fast, forceful manner. It sounded so different than what I had expected that I didn't even figure out what he said until Felix started imitating him after the doors closed again. I am always fascinated by the manner of speech in different cultures, as that way someone says something conveys a lot about their culture and their view of the world. Although the "Adiós!" did not have that sense of courtesy conveyed in North America, it sounded much more sincere and trustworthy.

Walking into the apartment, I flick the light switch. Nothing. We try another switch. Still nothing. For the next ten minutes, we run around the apartment trying various switches, but we still had no lights. I was mentally retracing through everything I did before leaving the apartment to figure out if it was something I did. In the end, we decide to leave a note on their door and hope we didn't break the electrical system in their apartment.

Before we leave, we step onto the enclosed balcony to take a quick view of the city. Among the drying clothes and other clutter on the balcony, we noticed a plant on a table. It was a plant about a metre tall with long stalks and thin, palmately compounded leaves with serrated edges. "Uh... is that...?" Felix says. We look at each other. "I think it is...." It was a young cannabis plant. Suddenly, I notice that the balcony was actually filled with the smell of cannabis, and that you can actually smell strong wafts of this distinct smell inside the apartment from time to time. I wonder how that fact had escaped me earlier. It was the first time we had been so close to a cannabis plant. I examined it. It was a beautiful plant, well formed, healthy, like a very well treated houseplant. On the leaves, you can see some of the shiny grey resin that can be rubbed off using your palm and then scraped off to make hashish. We would later find out that their friend had given them the cannabis plant. Their friend had given up on keeping the plant because his dog would find the plant and eat it, no matter where he hid it.

Leaving the apartment, we stick the note on the door. We decide to take a short walk around the old part of Madrid since we are located quite close to it. Using a map I obtained from the tourist information desk at the airport, we start walking to the Royal Palace, the first point of interest along our route. Walking up to a gate by the Palace, we realize that we were on the wrong side. It was a gate that opened into a wooded park with a long, straight tree-lined road. According to the map, the Palace was somewhere on the other side of the compound. Peering into the gate, a guard stopped us and directed us to go back and around to the other side.