Tuesday, March 31, 2009

City of Lights

I had a morning flight back to Paris, so had little time to do much other than have breakfast and one last freshly squeezed orange juice before making my way to the airport. By the time I arrived in Paris, made my way to town and checked into my hotel, it was mid-afternoon, leaving me precious little time to do much.

After checking into my hotel I did however wander over to Sacré Coeur, the Roman Catholic Basilica, to take in the view of Paris that it offers from its elevated location. As usual it was full of people sitting on the steps gaping at street performers with the city of Paris as a backdrop.

For dinner I was planning a much different meal than the night prior in Morocco. I wanted to visit an old haunt of mine from when I had first moved to Paris. It was a small Italian Restaurant across from my first apartment where the owner spoke only Italian and French. At the time I only spoke English and German, but somehow we always understood one another. The restaurant had since closed, but was taken over by another Italian gentleman that kept the high standard of food. It wasn’t quite the same, but I would gladly return.
I decided to spend my remaining evening with a bottle of wine on Pont des Arts, usually a popular hangout with artists and students. While little was going on, there was a group of students playing the guitar and enjoying some wine. The group invited me over to chat, an invitation I accepted.

I generally find it interesting to speak to people in generations other than my own as there is always so much to be gleaned from conversation. This group of late teen/early 20-somethings firmly believed in the French Socialist ideals. While the political climate of France is changing, they believed that they too could live as their parents did including having a secure job, a 35 hour work week and six weeks of vacation a year. While on the surface this all sounds rosy, it does have its drawbacks...at least to a guy working on Wall Street. Here is some of the guitar work of one of the guys as we looked at the view of the picture just above:

I left my new friends with a half a bottle of wine and bid them farewell.

Monday, March 30, 2009

More Marrekech

I had a little sightseeing on the agenda for the morning, but couldn’t begin without stopping for a honey crepe. The culinary traditions of France made their way across the Mediterranean along with other aspects of the culture and I wasn’t disappointed.

On my stroll through Marrakech I passed by La Place, but it is a very different place during the day. During daylight hours, the square is frequented by snake charmers, henna artists and other people trying to cobble together some semblance of a living.

I didn’t have a very aggressive schedule for the day, but it did involve a significant amount of walking, my favored mode of transport when discovering a city. While walking isn’t always the best way to get around all cities, Marrakech was certainly walkable if I was willing to put up with a little heat and many touts.

I started my day by visiting the Marrakech Museum, though it did take some effort to find. I had learned my lesson with unofficial guides, so I found a child to show me the way. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. The museum is a restored palace that boasts both traditional and contemporary Moroccan art among its treasures. The real draw though is the palace itself.

I also stopped at the Medersa, or Koranic School to get a sense of what it was like to be one of the hundreds of students that came from around the world between the 14th and 16th centuries to study Islam at the school. While the school is no longer in use I was able to get a good sense of what it would have been like to live in the cramped concrete rooms with only one small window. I'll pass, thanks.

Since arriving in Morocco I had been looking for an authentic hammam and I finally found one near my hotel in Marrakech. Many houses in Morocco don’t come equipped with running water, or at least not hot water, so the hammam is where people come to bathe, shave, brush teeth and socialize. How do I know the hammam was authentic? They overcharged me. Significantly. Actually, it was quite obvious that it was a local affair, first of which being that there were no signs for the hammam whatsoever. All the locals know exactly where to find them. The hammam was a series of three successive 20’ by 20’ tile rooms akin to a wet, albeit very wet, sauna without the seats. Upon entering each person is given a bucket to fill with hot water but to also use in cordoning off some floor space. The corners of the room were the high rent district as everything sloped to the drain in the center of the room, meaning that if you weren’t in a corner you got another persons dirty water runoff flowing past.

In the hammam there is also a common treatment called Gommage in French, where people slough their skin with a rough glove thereby removing dead skin. Make no mistake though that a hammam is not a spa, but rather a place to get clean. I opted for the treatment to get the true experience and for all of $7 and it worked like a charm. The treatment was by no means gentle, but I am quite certain that I had nary a dead skin cell left on my body when the guy got through with me. Not only that, but my entire body was bright red from the abrasion.

But wait, there’s more. Following the scouring is the stretching of body parts reminiscent of visiting the chiropractor from Hades. As I sat on the wet tile floor I was grabbed by various limbs, stretched and contorted until nearly every one of my joints made a loud popping noise. I like to term it “good pain”, but my back made a noise as if someone was stepping on a roll of packing bubbles. When I was done though, clean of all the grime, I felt quite good actually.

My only goal for the evening was to sample as much Moroccan fare as I could possibly cram into my gullet. I wanted to sample as many of the Moroccan delights as I could before leaving the country. I walked out to La Place and began peeking at what was on offer at the various food stalls. I started with grilled lamb sausages that were served with fresh salsa. I had them the night prior with Ben, but they were just that good. I moved on to grilled shrimp and then had my main meal: snail soup followed by goat’s head. It might not be on everyone’s list of foods to try, but I had to give it a go. The snail soup tasted substantially similar to escargot that might be served in a restaurant in Paris. The goats head, well, was interesting. The jowls were probably the tastiest bit, but the brain was a bit mushy and I couldn’t really get used to the texture of the eye sockets. For some reason the eyeballs themselves aren’t consumed. I finished off with some honey cake for dessert and called it a night, waddling back to my hotel. I was stuffed beyond belief.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jebel Toubkal

Nearly a foot of snow fell overnight, so the plan Ben and I had concocted of following everyone else was going to be the winner. Another key aspect of the plan was in following the others tracks we might be able to keep our feet dry. Like so many other times in my travels, I employed plastic bags as clothing, this time around the outside of my boots, so as to keep the powdery snow out. I knew plastic bags would be of limited use as I was wearing crampons, spikes on the bottom of my boots to keep me from slipping on the ice. Even if my feet only stayed dry for an additional ten minutes, it was ten fewer minutes of misery I would have to endure.

In theory our plan of following the others was brilliant. The one thing we didn’t count on though was that the wind would be howling, even at lower elevations. It took all of three minutes for the tracks of people ahead of us to be completely covered.

Ben and I slogged on, each taking turns breaking trail through the snow. As we slogged on we eventually caught the group in front of us and paused with them for a little snack break. As we continued on and gained elevation the wind pushed harder. Ben and I were completely under-clothed for the climb, but at least he had a waterproof jacket. I on the other hand was wearing a short sleeved shirt, covered by a long sleeved shirt, a fleece jacket and as a balaclava/hat I was wearing a shirt and baseball cap. The last trick up my sleeve though was a plastic rain poncho in the event I would need some wind/waterproof protection.

It was a tough slog and with no real trails, we only had a vague idea as to the where we needed to go and the best route to use. As we weren’t able to see the top of Jebel Toubkal, we did all we could in reading the mountains and determining the best route. We followed some valleys between smaller mountains and ascended the open flanks of others. At the steepest section I was front pointing on my crampons, but no ropes were required. There were however a few spots where things would have ended quite badly should one of us have lost our footing.

The day grew colder and windier as we ascended. I had to put on my plastic rain poncho and in the winds that were blowing up to 60 MPH, proved to be a challenge. It was only with Ben’s assistance that I was able to don the poncho. It didn’t take long though for the wind to begin tearing it off my body.

Near the summit I saw a few tracks which I though would lead us straight to the top. I was getting awfully cold in the wind so I was looking forward to reaching the top of the mountain and heading back down to lower elevation. The tracks led to a false summit dashing my hopes, but I was able to see the real summit and the route leading to it.

Within minutes Ben and I walked across a ridge to the top of Jebel Toubkal. The view from the top of the tallest mountain in Northern Africa was awe inspiring. There were snow capped peaks in every direction. Ben and I took a few obligatory photos and enjoyed the view for a minute. As we were getting ready to head back down one other person came up and asked if he could follow us down. He seemed a bit shaky, but well enough to walk.

The wind was relentless, tearing at my plastic jacket and pulling it off my body. While the wind on the way up was at our backs, it was now hitting us square in the face on our descent. I donned a pair of extra socks as gloves and tried the best I could to shield my face. When I looked at our new partner I could see that the wind had blown his hood entirely off and he was standing prostate with his eyes wide open. Ben grabbed him by the arm as I tried to cover his head and face. He was making incoherent noises as we tried to usher him further down the mountain. By this point, my plastic rain poncho had been completely torn off my body in the wind. We just tried to keep our friend walking and at one point had to get one of his gloves back on his hand as it was sliding off. It felt like chaperoning the walking dead. Within 15 minutes he seemed to be recovering in that we were descending out of the wind. Shortly thereafter we came upon the rest of his group, where we left him and continued down.

The trip down was far easier than up, but could have been made much simpler still had I a snowboard. Some sections might have been a bit gnarly, but it would have taken us a fraction of the time.

As we descended, Ben and I figured out our plans after leaving the area. Ben wanted to go skiing at a nearby mountain and I was hoping to be back in Marrakech by the end of the day. We walked throughout the day and made our way back to the town of Imlil.

As it turned out, Ben was going to head back to Marrakech before going skiing, so we met up with some folks at the taxi stand and tried to get a ride back to Marrakech. Our initial plan was to hop a public grand taxi back to the city. We thought about privately hiring a taxi to take the two of us, but as it would have quadrupled the price, we figured we would wait for the one remaining person to fill a seat as there were already three other people waiting for a ride to Marrakech. In my capitalist ways I understand that people want just compensation, so I offered to pay for the additional seat and leave it vacant. No dice. Despite everyone, including the locals lobbying on our behalf, it didn’t work. It wasn’t long though before a sixth passenger crammed in the taxi: four in the back, three in the front. At one point on the drive I thought that I should have just ponied up for the taxi and hired it for ourselves, but it was an experience.

Back in Marrakech Ben and I checked into a hotel and immediately went out to La Place, where hundreds of street vendors were setting up food stalls. On offer are various sea foods, all manner of mammals as well as the odd bits that don’t fall into either category. The food stalls have bench tables ringing their stalls and are vocal about drawing in business. Ben was looking for a stall doling out sausages at which he had eaten the night prior. The two of us did an admirable job of sampling various foods, but after a few hours we were full and I wouldn’t be able to eat another thing…until breakfast of course.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Atlas Mountains

Ben and I weren’t in any particular hurry to get moving as the standard time to make it to the first nights hut was five or six hours. Generally when being quoted time for hiking or climbing, there is a large buffer built in so the time we started out didn’t really concern us. When we finally did begin making our way out of town around ten there was a light rain. Of all the things I was interested in, rain was not on the list. Also, it would be very important for Ben and me to stay dry as we didn’t have all the proper winter gear. There was a limit as to what we could rent in Imlil.

As we were leaving in the morning, Mohammed’s son walked with us out of the village to initially show us the way. We had no trouble navigating our way out of town, but when we arrived at a large scree field where we really could have used some guidance, he pointed vaguely and said, “Go that way” with a most general wave of his hand.

While we weren’t on anything that even remotely looked like a trail as we set off we did eventually find the path. There was another town further up the mountain so there were a few local folks heading in that direction giving us an inkling as to where we needed to go. We were even able to trail a local fellow who showed us a few shortcuts that knocked off some of the switchbacks on the trail. While the weather was less than ideal the rain turned into snow, which was preferable.

As we passed the last village we lost our friend showing us the shortcuts and were summoned by two locals who tried to sell us everything under the sun, or snow for that matter. They claimed it would be at least another four hours to the hut and we should buy all sorts of provisions. We didn’t fall for it.

As snow continued to fall our path disappeared. Ben and I discussed the situation and talked about various scenarios. While we didn’t necessarily have all the gear that we might have wanted we did have experience on our side. In the big picture we knew that for the final run up to the hut we had to follow a valley upwards. We were initially told that we would be able to see the hut up the valley at least 45 minutes before we reach it. With the blowing snow we could barely see 40 feet ahead, much less up a mountain. We were able to piece together the trail using visual clues in the snow and how the mountains were laid out. We were able to see the hut exactly four minutes before we reached it.

As Ben and I walked in the hut I laughed as it was a scene straight out of a movie where the wind was whistling, swirling snow followed us in and I had to use my shoulder to close the door behind us. The hut was far more than I had expected. It was a building big enough to sleep 70 people in six communal dorm rooms. The only drawback was the dire lack of heat. I understand that wood is a scarce commodity above the tree line, but had I known I might have brought a few logs along for a bit of warmth.

Ben and I were the only ones in the hut with the exception of the two caretakers, so we again had ample free time from our arrival at 2:00 onward. We had some tea and did our best to keep warm. I was almost certain that it was warmer outside than in, other than for the lack of wind blowing inside.

Ben and I wouldn’t be the sole guests for the evening as a French Canadian couple made an appearance as did a mixed group of a dozen or so Moroccans & French.

In the late afternoon, the caretakers did start a small fire, but the amount of heat it produced was lost in the large room. Nearly all of the occupants of the hut were jockeying for position around the meager fire, with the remaining few wrapped in blankets.

As meals were included for our nights stay we were given the dinner option of spaghetti or spaghetti. I was hoping for something more Moroccan, but I estimate that it was difficult to beat the cost effectiveness of pasta. As everything has to be carried up to the hut, it is also rather compact and doesn’t readily spoil. Dinner was however a social affair where I had the opportunity to speak with everyone else. It was a rather diverse group, which I found to be quite common in meeting people when I travel. I found the French expats living in Morocco the most interesting as they were able to give me insight to the business environment of the various cities in Morocco, which, for the most part are limited Casablanca and Rabat.

It had been snowing since Ben and I were underway earlier in the day and it appeared that the snow had no intention of relenting. With that, Ben and I formulated our plan for the morning. While initially we wanted to get an absurdly early start so that we could make it back to Marrakech by nightfall, the snow forced us to change our plan. We were the least equipped out of the lot, so we figured we would follow one of the other teams going up so that we could follow their tracks and not have to cut new trail through a foot of snow. It grows rather tiring trudging through powdery snow, especially while wearing crampons.

As the evening grew long, people began to filter into their rooms and off to sleep.

Friday, March 27, 2009

To the Mountains

My plan for the day was to take care of a few things at an internet café and head out of the city to the Atlas Mountains. I had spent more time cities than I needed to, so I was looking forward to the snowy mountains of Morocco.

As I was checking my e-mail, Ben, who I had met in Rabat, mentioned that he too would be heading to the mountains from Marrakech later in the day. It only made sense for us to head out that way and hit the mountains together.

I met Ben in the Medina and instantly realized that it was the Marrakech everyone talks about. Ben and I chatted about hopping a bus out to the town of Imlil, the starting off point for climbing Jebel Toubkal, the tallest mountain in North Africa, but opted to hire a "grand" taxi instead.

In Morocco each city has two different types of taxis. The “mini” taxi is one that looks like any severely rundown late model car and for a dollar or two will take you around town. The cars are always painted a single, uniform color, but that color varies from city to city. The “grand” taxi is always an ancient beige Mercedes sedan that has seen better days; much better days. The grand taxis only travel between cities, have a fixed price per person and do not leave until they are full. Full means four passengers in the back and two in the front in addition to the driver. That is seven people in a car designed to hold five.

It is possible to negotiate with the grand taxi drivers to hire the vehicle for oneself and $35 for a one and a half hour taxi ride seemed like a bargain to us. Ben and I also wanted to get out to the town of Imlil and set everything up to begin our climb up Jebel Toubkal the following morning.

Much like the Rockies, the Atlas Mountains jutted out of the earth with little lead up. It was like driving west from Denver. We began to see small villages dotting the landscape and thousands of wildflowers. It was spring and everything was in bloom. Our driver mentioned though that in two months everything would be brown from the summer heat.

As we neared the town of Imlil, Ben and I discussed how long it might take us to set up with what we would need for our climb: ice axes, crampons, sleeping bag, etc. While it was warm in town, the mountains were white and another foot of snow was expected in the next day or two. Our question of timing was answered as soon as the taxi stopped in Imlil and I opened the door of the taxi. We were set upon before even having both feet out of the car. Mohammed (of course that was his name) greeted us and explained that he had everything we might need for the trip, including a place to stay for the night which included dinner and breakfast. While it seemed a good value, Ben and I wanted to discuss it over some Tagine, a slow cooked stew of chicken, potato and vegetable, braised at a low temperature in a ceramic dish.

In the end, Ben and I decided to go with the package deal as the time and money spent cobbling everything together wouldn’t have been worth it. It also gave us more leverage getting everything in one place. The only other thing we needed was two days worth of provisions which Ben took care of while I was sorting out our gear needs.

Once geared up we took a half hour walk from Imlil to the village of Armoud. The house in which we were staying was in the process of being built and the bathroom was outside, but Ben and I had all we needed each with a mattress on the floor. It was far more posh than accommodations I have had before starting other climbs.

We met Mohammed's family though they only spoke Berber. As you might imagine communications were limited. For dinner they served us up a magnificent tagine and with little else to do thereafter, I read until I nodded off.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

What can I say about spending eight hours of the day on a train from Fez to Marrakech? I slept the first three hours, so it did seem to go by quite quickly. In contemplating my transit between the cities there was the option of taking a flight, but in the grand scheme of things I had a seat with a view and brought plenty of food with me to share. Sharing food is what people in Morocco do, harking back to their nomadic Berber ancestry as desert travelers. Most of the train passengers weren’t heading the entire distance to Marrakech, so there were tons of local folks on and off the train to speak with, which is another factor I used to determine as to whether I would fly or not; face time with locals.

Upon arrival in Marrakech I found myself in the most cosmopolitan, or rather developed city in Morocco yet. There were more faces of tourists than any of the three previous cities that I had visited combined. There was also a hop on, hop off tour bus akin to that in western cities. This was most certainly not the Marrakech of the 60’s era.

I found a hotel room for the night in the new part of town and set out on my own version of a walking tour. My walk confirmed what I had initially seen; many tourists in a developed area. I figured I would try to beat the tourist happenings by asking the hotel proprietor where I could find a hammam (Moroccan bathhouse). Hammams are such an integral part of life for many Moroccans as they don’t have running water in their home. The hammam offers a place for them to get clean and socialize. I located the hammam that the hotel proprietor recommended, but it was more like a western spa than any hammam I have ever seen.

I was somewhat disappointed in my evening in Marrakech, but I was in the new city and not the Medina. I was going to save that for another day.

In speaking with so many people using my somewhat limited French I cursed myself for not speaking the language better, but when I was living in Paris I had other things to do. I would usually be in the office from the opening of the French Stock Exchange to the close of the New York Stock Exchange, leaving me with a 13 hour workday when things ran smoothly. I learned French by immersion. Even in a country where I don’t speak a lick of the local language, I always make an effort to learn a handful of words and phrases. It makes such a difference in connecting with the people. My few phrases of Arabic were useful in the cities of Morocco, but the main language in rural areas is Berber and oftentimes they speak no other language. Part of the fun of travel is trying to communicate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fez, Morocco

First thing in the morning I said goodbye to Ben and hopped the train from Rabat to the city of Fez (yes, of the hats with the same name). On the train I met a girl from Arizona who was going to be teaching in Morocco for two years. She seemed and it would later be confirmed that she wasn't exactly the savviest of travelers. I generally don’t cast judgment but I really wondered how she got out of the United Stated, much less navigated Morocco.

Upon arrival in Fez I didn’t find the hotel I was looking for immediately, but in my missteps stumbled upon another branch of the Moroccan Central Bank. I was able to pop in and have a little talk with someone there. My visits to the Central Banks across the globe always seems to differ widely in the content and level of the person who is designated to speak with me. I always try to make an appointment, but in places like Singapore it isn’t at all possible due simply to their culture of pushing responsibility to someone else. While my meeting in Fez was not the most informative, I did collect some insight into the banking and economic environment of Morocco.

Following a short walk I found the hotel I had been searching for and who should be checking in, but the same girl from the train. Now I am not sure I have ever seen this happen in all my travels, but she actually talked “up” the price of the hotel from the original quote. There was a bigger problem though as she had an unofficial tour guide latch on to her. It is prevalent in Morocco for individuals to offer services as a guide in an effort to earn a few extra dirham and they can be persistent. When the girl mentioned that she no longer wanted the guides services he became enraged and demanded money. To the girls credit she remained calm when the guy began shouting “F--- You, I kill you!”. I grabbed the girl and told her to go to her room until the guide leaves.

I went for a walk around the downtown area of Fez to see what the city was all about. The downtown area was far more decentralized than Rabat, but it just gave me more of an opportunity to walk around. There were hundreds of Moroccan flags flying throughout the city as the King was in town.

During my walk I was set upon by the same unofficial guide that was harassing the girl in the hotel. He tried his same threat tactics, but I wasn’t buying it. Most locals go for sympathy to try and separate tourists and their money, but this guy’s game was to be threatening and in your face. It is always disconcerting to be in a foreign country and have a local threatening you, but my read on the guy was that he was all bark and no bite. Eventually the guy wandered off, though I did keep an eye out over my shoulder. This guy was the exception to what I have found in my travels, not the rule so I didn’t think much of it.

In the afternoon I went over to the Medina (yes, every city has a Medina). The Medina in Fez is much larger than that in Rabat (several square miles in fact) and more intense. Vendors are more aggressive in making sales and unofficial guides are rampant.

My goal for the afternoon was to get completely lost in the Medina and try to find my way out. The old medieval streets are a maze and rarely run in any pattern. In my travels I have stumbled upon some of the best things, or met the nicest people when totally away from what are considered areas in which a traveler should be.

I started out by visiting the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, near the Medina. While Morocco is approximately 99.7% Sunni Muslim, there are a handful of Christians, some Baha'i and about 5,000 people of the Jewish faith living in the country and have been since the early 1400's.

With a cryptic map showing the main thoroughfares of the Medina I was able to navigate myself to an area where numerous leather tanneries were located. I did however have a little help from the pungent odor emanating from the tanning area. Tanning leather is a somewhat lucrative if not unhealthy profession for Moroccans. There are large vats filled with chemicals in which the workers die the hides and from what I hear, being exposed to the chemicals all day every day will cut down on the average person’s lifespan rather substantially.

When I was looking for a particular museum I was at a loss, so I figured I would engage the services of one of the unofficial guides to help me out. I didn’t get the greatest vibe from the guy so when he made numerous turns and moved quickly down deserted alleys, I made it a point to remember every turn. My memory rewarded me as when the guide thought I was sufficiently lost he demanded 20 times the money that we agreed. I didn’t have trouble finding my way out, but it was not all that pleasant with him walking behind me hurling every insult he could think of in his broken English.

Having been in the hustle and bustle of the city all day I decided to walk up to a hilltop on the outskirts of town to have a look down over Fez. To me it was like looking at New York City from a plane. From well above the city appeared quiet and peaceful. While up on the bluff I decided that I had enough of cities for the time being and wanted to head south to the Atlas Mountains. I had planned on staying two nights in Fez, but the draw of the mountains knocked it down to one. I would take a train to Marrakech in the morning, the jumping off point for the mountains.

I dove back into the Medina in Fez and was unable to get myself lost as the tourist bureau recently put up signs for several walking tours through the medina. There were a few times where I did end up in a place I wouldn’t have expected, but invariably I would come across a sign pointing me towards some recognizable landmark.

I continued on my own through the Medina and at one point there were several large men with communication radios and weapons. All the people cleared to the side and stood watching so I did the same. It took several minutes of conversation to learn that not only was the King of Morocco in town but the Prince was as well. The Prince happened to be in the Medina saying hello to the people of the city. When the Prince walked by, much to my surprise the Prince didn’t look any older than six. I saw the Moroccan Prince and in the distant future when he is King I can say that I saw him in Fez.

I enjoyed my day of exploration, but left the medina to check the train schedule. I had the option of an overnight train, but as you may well imagine, there was little appeal in having to try and get a nights sleep while click-clacking along.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rabat II

In the morning Ben and I were both headed to the same place, the Chellah. Built over 2,000 years ago, the Chellah is an abandoned fort that while in ruins, still gives a glimpse into its former glory. The isolated location of the fort was a wonderful respite from the cities of the past two days. The area was largely overgrown, not to the point of needing machetes to hack or way through, but enough to give it a ruinous, deserted quality. In the midst of the greenery were trees of fig, olive, orange and grapefruit as well as thousands of wildflowers in all colors. And while the fort was deserted by people, it is currently home to several hundred storks. As storks are viewed as a symbol of good luck, they are left to multiply at the Chellah.

In the afternoon Ben had to go to collect his passport from the Mauritanian Embassy in an effort to get a visa for the country, so I took a walk over to the mausoleum of Mohammed V and a half built minaret. Construction on the minaret began in 1195, but upon the death of the King who championed it, construction was halted. While the minaret was to be the tallest in the world, the Kings untimely demise saw an end to that, leaving the structure only 144 feet tall, just over half its intended height. The mausoleum was however complete and while not quite the Taj Mahal, it was exquisite and supposedly one of the finest examples of Almoravid architecture. I can’t claim any expertise on Almoravid architecture, but I was impressed with the craftsmanship of the mausoleum.

I planned my visit to the Central Bank in Rabat, but as it turned out that the bank was closed to the public. As a saving grace the Central Bank did have a currency museum. The majority of the museum related to coins, some 2,000 years old, but there was a small collection of banknotes. Most everyone seems to collect something in their lives and I happen to collect banknotes from foreign countries. The way I think about it, there are worse things to collect than money.

After my visit to the bank I decided to further immerse myself in the culture of Morocco by heading back to the Medina (market). There were all manner of things for sale in the Medina: dates, figs, lentils, corn (crushed and otherwise), any manner of spices, reptiles (turtles & chameleons), oranges, knock off purses, shoes, clothing & cell phones. I laughed at the juxtaposition of someone selling cell phones sandwiched in between a stall peddling figs and another selling organ meat. While the market was really a feast for the senses, stranger still was when I wandered through the market listening to the local sounds and heard the band Coldplay coming from inside one of the shops. The audio clip below doesn't include Coldplay, but it might give you of an idea what it sounds like inside a crowded medina with hawkers peddling their wares.

As it was a warm day I decided to head to the oceanfront and the cool breeze it was offering. I considered getting a little surfing in, but the waves were virtually non-existent and in any case unsurfable.

For dinner I was still looking for that elusive dish of couscous. It seems though that in Morocco, Friday night is couscous night. As I was wandering around I randomly ran into Ben and Laurie, a girl he met in town. The three of us decided to find someplace to settle in for the night, which turned out to be a completely smoke filled cafe. We all shared travel stories over a few drinks, my favorite being that Ben was once denied boarding on a plane in Paraguay as he had spent the several weeks prior in the jungle and was deemed too dirty. Paraguay of all places. Perhaps I found the story entertaining as I had a similar experience at a Sheraton hotel after having been in jungles of Borneo for a month.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rabat, Morocco

It was a beautiful sunny morning with the temperature hovering in the 70’s; exactly what I was looking forward to after spending the majority of the time in Europe contending with the mercury in the upper 40 degree range.

Whenever I visit a new country I always try to visit their Stock Exchange (should the country have one) and their Central Bank. International equity markets have always been an interest of mine and even though I am not “working”, the interest has not subsided in the slightest. In my travels I have visited over 25 Stock Exchanges and Central Banks, each idiosyncratic. Some, like the Mongolia Stock Exchange trade only several days a week and even then only for several hours. When I arrived at the exchange in Mongolia the trading floor was devoid of people and there was nothing stopping me from just walking right in. There is always something to be learned form the biggest powerhouse of an exchange to the smallest and most illiquid.

In my search for the Casablanca Stock Exchange I learned that it wasn’t just my taxi driver the night before that wasn’t familiar with the streets, but pretty much everyone. Part of the problem is that many of the street names are being officially changed from their historical French name to Arabic. Another issue is that most streets have the name “Mohammed” in them. The only saving grace is that there are almost always two main thoroughfares, one running east/west and the other north/south, named Mohammed V and Hassan II. The roads are named after the two Kings of Morocco holding the throne prior to the current Mohammed VI.

I found the exchange in time for my meeting, though I am sure that describing what transpired would not be nearly as much of interest to my readership as it is to me so I’ll keep it short. In some ways the exchange was fairly typical for its size, but it is still a developing marketplace. The exchange trades 77 stocks, of which Morocco Telecom accounts for about 25% of the market capitalization. That ratio for the telecom issue isn’t uncommon for developing countries. The Iraq Stock Exchange, where about 90 equities are traded is a somewhat different story as the biggest issues are actually banks. There have however been some rather unusual circumstances which the Iraq exchange has been working under for some time. But I digress…

For most visitors, there is really only one thing to see in Casablanca as the city, for the most part, is the main city of commerce in Morocco. The Hassan II Mosque though, is well worth the visit. While most mosques are closed to non-Muslims, the Hassan II Mosque is open to visitors for a fee when it is not prayer time.

Hassan II Mosque is a massive affair, which is the third largest mosque in the world. I liken it to a sports stadium in as it can hold 25,000 people inside (another 80,000 outside), has an admission fee of $15 (a bit light for a sporting event) has escalators and elevators (pretty atypical for a mosque), heated floors (OK, not the same but a hockey rink has cooled floors) a retracting roof (Cowboy Stadium anyone?) and cost more than a few hundred million to build. The official estimate is 500 million, but with a wink and a nod from my guide I was told it was well over one billion. It took 6,000 craftsmen six years to build working around the clock.

For those of you holding dreams that Casablanca is anything like the film of the same name, I will have to dispel that myth. While there is a Rick’s café, it is solely a tourist trap. Having run out of things to see in Casablanca I hopped a train to the capital city of Rabat. If Casablanca is the New York of Morocco, Rabat is the Washington D.C..

The train to Rabat was just over an hour and as soon as I walked out of the train station in Rabat I noticed far more tourists than in Casablanca. One person later mentioned to me that it is the case as there is far more to see in Rabat than Casablanca.

In looking for a hotel in Rabat I was shot down on my first choice as they were full. As I was walking out of the hotel there was someone walking in that was soon subject to the same fate of looking elsewhere for accommodations. I met Ben as we were both walking down the street towards another hotel. He had a place in mind so we both headed over there and were able to find a place to hang our hats for the night. I generally haven’t had problems finding hotels in my travels; though Calcutta, India is a notable exception and really…you don’t want to be without a place to stay there.

Ben is a freelance writer that is planning to head south through Western Africa for the next several months. We decided to take a walk around the city and as he had been in Rabat before, he led the way. We ambled through the Medina (market) and Kasbah (yes, a song by The Clash but also a fortress where a ruler would govern from in times of war). We received very little in the way of hassle from touts or salesman peddling their wares, which I was told would be the exception, not the rule in the cities of Fez and Marrakech. The city of Rabat was far easier to navigate than Casablanca in both the way it was laid out and that there was far more in the way of street signs.

We made our way down to the ocean and noticed some surfers catching a few meager waves. From down at the oceanfront it was easy to imagine the importance of the city in the days of the seafarers. The walls surrounded much of the city, protecting it from the sea and the invaders that plied the waters. The city itself, founded in the third century BC, was ruled at times by: Phoenicians, Romans, Barbary Pirates, Berbers, Almoravids, Almohads and the French. The city of Rabat was even once attacked by the Austrians. The Austrians!?!?

Ben and I went for a bite to eat at a local restaurant and more than the food, what I noticed was that several cats were swirling around our feet. Animals in a restaurant aren’t considered a health hazard as in the western world. There is no shortage of cats in Morocco. Where some countries have an excess of dogs milling about, Morocco is overrun with cats

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Casablanca, Morocco

After my time in Europe I was off to Morocco and I had far too much gear, especially when the temperature was going to be mostly in the 80’s in Morocco. With a little convincing, OK, a lot of convincing, I was able to store some things at my hotel in Paris for 10 days until I returned from Morocco.

As I had some time before my afternoon flight I made one last attempt at my favorite sandwich shop, but my efforts of heading across town to the other location went unrewarded as they were not open on Sunday. With some time still on my hands, I decided I would head to the Left Bank of Paris and check out the neighborhood to which I moved after the water main incident in my second apartment.

The Left Bank is a far different neighborhood from the family district near the Eiffel Tower where I had lived prevoiusly. While technically the Left Bank is all of Paris that sits on the south side of the River Seine, Left Bank refers to an area around Boulevard St. Michel that is frequented by the artistic and/or Bohemian set. The area is awash in cafes, which at some point in history you may have seen the faces of Picasso, Camus, Hemmingway or Sartre sipping a coffee inside. I walked by what was my third apartment in Paris and while I couldn’t see anything inside, the door was still there as were several of the shops in the area. It made me again think back to my time living in Paris, but I had to get to the airport.

My flight to Casablanca, Morocco was just as I like; uneventful. The flight took me over the Mediterranean Sea and then the northern snowcapped mountains of Morocco, hiding the Sahara Desert behind them.

I arrived in Casablanca well after 9 PM, which is less than ideal as I like to see new cities for the first time in daylight. While it was less than ideal, it certainly isn’t the latest that I had arrived in a new city. One of my favorites was arriving in Rangoon, Myanmar around midnight. After catching a ride to town I was shown to a hotel by street children. The kids would wait for me to leave my hotel each morning.

It was nearly an hour long train ride to get from the airport to the Casablanca train station and I still had to take a cab to the center of town from there. I knew exactly where in town I wanted to go, but the driver had not heard of any of the four streets that I rattled off. I ended up telling him just to take me to the center of the city. The driver was using multiple choice lanes as most of us do, either lane A, B, C etc., but he had a new choice, D) All of the above. Lanes didn’t seem to mean anything as he drove where he deemed fit. It is actually quite common in third world countries where “rules” of the road are taken as suggestions and not very serious ones at that.

Once I finally made it downtown I was able to orient myself on the map I was using and found a crash pad for the night. It wasn’t much of a hotel and didn’t have a shower, but I only needed a room in which to sleep. I also didn’t have to worry about storing a bag as I only had my book bag, which was largely empty as I had left most of my things in Paris.

I decided to amble around and see what I could find in Casablanca on my first night in Morocco. I’m not sure what I found, but it didn’t take long for touts to find me. I had several offers for guide services, companionship and drugs. I passed on the lot and found a place to grab a late night bite for dinner. It seemed that pizza was on offer in just about every dining venue. As it was so prevalent I figured I would pass on the couscous and see what the pizza was all about. In my travels I generally sample what other countries offer as their version of pizza, as most countries have their own version. Oddly enough, one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten on the planet was in Nepal.

I found Morocco intriguing in all the outside influence. The country has several Spanish enclaves, yet French is the main language outside of Arabic. Almost no English is spoken and it wasn’t easy to tell who might be a local, though at the late hour it was pretty much everyone. I had an early morning planned and was trying to break from my European sleep schedule, so I turned in after my late night snack.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

And the Winner...

of the inagural Competitours is:

Well, unfortunately, not either one of my teams. David and I thought we had a good beat on things, but we weren’t in the running for the top spot for the first game. Elizabeth and I fared somewhat better as we finished second out of the lot of eleven teams in the second game.

Elizabeth and I had a perfect score going into the second day, got full marks for our Champagne video, but must have faltered on Île de la Cité. Regardless, I still love that area of Paris and when it comes right down to it, it was a free trip to Europe. I got to reconnect with some of my old haunts and visit a few new places while having the opportunity to catch up with a couple of my friends. In a way, I did win.

Game Over

The competition was over and I had the opportunity to catch some well needed rest after the last week of activities. The group had a free day in Paris before flying out the following day.

My game plan for the day was to visit some old haunts from when I lived in the city. I met with Elizabeth at the Garnier Opera, which is just a splendid building. In the year and half I lived in the city it was completely covered up for restoration. I had seen it since, but am still impressed with the intricacy of the structure.

It was an amazingly beautiful spring day and it seemed that all of Paris was making use of the outdoors on this Saturday. I was hoping to have lunch at my favorite sandwich shop, but the plan was thwarted as the shop was no longer there. As plan B, and a good one I might add, we stopped at a grocery store and bought a few things to have somewhat of a picnic in the Tuileries, the Parisian equivalent of New York’s Central Park. The park is just behind the Louvre and my first apartment in Paris (I moved when my apartment was burglarized). The Tuileries used to be my backyard.

So much of Paris has changed in my absence, but they do still sell Eiffel Tower keychains, though they are just priced in Euro instead of Francs. There is also a new scam in town, perpetrated by people with varying levels of commitment and conviction. It goes something like this: the person pretends to spot a gold ring on the ground a second before you do. As they are allegedly not legally residing in France, they can’t turn the ring into the police or sell it. They try to give you the “gold” ring, which is in fact worthless so that you can sell it, asking for a few Euro so they can get something to eat. Elizabeth and I got that scam three times in a matter of 10 minutes. By the third time I told Elizabeth to pull out the video camera, which she did, much to the chagrin of the scam artist who made at least several obscene gestures in our direction as they stormed off.

We wandered past the Eiffel Tower, down Rue Kléber and past the second of my old apartments in Paris. It was a great place and I had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower, but when I returned home from a business trip in New York, the water main in the building burst, flooding the entire building and leaving it without running water. It was time to move…again.

After a long, sunny day walking around the city, Elizabeth and I wanted to take pause and embrace all that is Parisian by sitting at an outdoor café and having a glass of wine. As the sun was growing low in the sky and a chill permeated the air, we opted to stop in the Buddha Bar instead. The Buddha Bar was one of the first places I was taken by colleagues when I had first come to Paris on business. So while I didn’t get to revisit my sandwich shop or an outdoor café for that matter, I was able to further reminisce about my time in Paris.

To close out the Competitours experience after our free day, the majority of the gang went out for a group dinner. It was fun to speak with people about their take on the game as well as getting to know a little more about some of the contestants. The experiences of the group are disparate, so I always appreciate another take on the world.

Friday, March 20, 2009


As the format for the game had changed removing the time deadlines each day, our team opted to get a bit of a later start. Having not gone to sleep prior to 2 AM since arriving in Europe, I needed an extra hour. I started my day by checking the train schedule to Epernay, one of the main towns in the heart of the Champagne region of France and where we would tackle our second challenge of the day. The research being done, I met up with Elizabeth and headed to Île de la Cité; an area of Paris steeped in history. Île de la Cité is home to Notre Dame Cathedral, Pont Neuf, Sainte Chapelle and oh, so much more. Not only that but Île de la Cité is the very center of Paris as all distances to/from Paris are measured to the square just in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Elizabeth and I got about halfway through our series of tasks on Île de la Cité when we realized that we would have to catch the very next train to Epernay if we were going to make it before the Champagne houses closed. We cut it awfully close to the point where we didn’t have time to buy train tickets, so we just jumped on the train. I wasn’t really sure what the ramifications of not having a ticket would be but assumed we could purchase tickets on the train, perhaps with some sort of surcharge. As I used to do some Disaster Recovery work among other things in my days on Wall Street, it was my job to figure out what the worst case scenario would be. In this instance it would have been being fined and thrown off the train, but I highly doubted that would be the case. I figured we could always play the part of the dumb tourist. Hey, we wound up in the train yard in Brussels.

In another “traveler’s moment” the ticket collector came through, was more than happy to sell us tickets and lived in Epernay! Two days in a row. While she wasn’t going to give us a ride, she did have some valuable information for us. I had been to Epernay back when I lived in France but that was in 2000, so my memory was a bit hazy, especially after all that Champagne tasting.

Upon arrival we immediately hit the information center in town and began our walk to one of the Champagne houses we were to visit. As there were no taxis around at the time Elizabeth stuck out her thumb. My first thought was that there was no way it would work. Within two minutes Elizabeth had us a ride with a gentleman who was in the throes of starting his own guide service in the area. Another win.

We completed our first task and left without so much as having a single glass of Champagne. While we had another part of the challenge to complete, I had my own mission: to visit a very small Champagne producer that still seals the corks of his bottles as used to be required by French law, with wax and hemp string. I remembered exactly where to find Achille Princier and while the Champagne house was somewhat different, there are still two vintages sealed the old fashioned way. It takes approximately 100 times longer to seal the bottle by tying it with hemp string that with the metal cages that are used today. I can always appreciate old world craftsmanship.
With my personal task complete, we made our way to another Champagne house and went on the tour. We didn’t film anything, but did enjoy the tour. Given the nature of the task we had yet to complete concerning Champagne, we figured we could do the filming back in Paris.

Upon arrival in Paris we returned immediately to Île de la Cité so that we could complete the remainder of our first task there. It was dark, but no matter, we were still able to get our filming in. It did however involve entering a park that was technically closed. Also, we still had to film our last task from Epernay and it was getting late. Most of the teams were going to meet up at 11 PM to go out as a group, so Elizabeth and I didn’t want to be late. I also just wanted to get our last challenge done beforehand; which we did. It was a relief to have finished up the game and go out for a bite to eat with the gang. Not too surprisingly, it turned into a late night.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


All the teams awoke to the surprise that our competition would be truncated in two parts. Monday through Wednesday was a wrap and Thursday would begin a new game for a new prize (two plane tickets). As we were all the guinea pigs on this inaugural trip, there were numerous rule changes in the past few days so the owner/operator/president/janitor running Competitours, Steve, decided it would be best to see how things would shake out under the new rules.

As the morning would bring a new game, my teammate David and I agreed to swap teammates with the team in discourse, so now I would be on the move with Elizabeth.

One of the most positive rule changes to the game was that there was no more time limit, but rather a maximum number of points a team could attempt on any given day. The changes slowed the pace of game and allowed teams to start or finish at whatever time they so chose as they could only attempt tasks totaling a maximum of 75 points. Scores awarded for the tasks were a binomial, meaning that if two teams completed the same tasks, one team would receive the high score for the task and the other would receive the low score. There is no in between. The number of tasks to achieve a maximum of 75 points, should the team receive full marks, was between two and seven based on complexity and geography.

There is strategy in the scoring that I liken to those Stock Market games, where people are given a fictitious $100,000 or so and after a week the person that has the most money wins. While in real life most people would want to build a balanced portfolio, in a stock market game it is generally the one that takes the most risk that will win, i.e., go for all or nothing. One might assume that the winner of a Stock Market game will finish in positive territory, i.e., with more than they started with. That being the case, it doesn’t matter if you finish with zero, $100,000 or anywhere in between, you still wouldn’t win the game. Leverage up, go for broke. Put it all on 16 red on the roulette wheel. As the scores in our little travel game were binomials, it was similar logic in attempting fewer, higher scoring tasks. The team that wins will choose the higher point value, higher risk challenges and that’s what Elizabeth and I decided to do. Before I get angry e-mails telling me that’s what got our country in trouble in this latest financial fiasco, this is all in theory as it is a game! But I digress…

The first order of business in the morning was to hit the train station and make our way to Brussels, Belgium home to moule frites and Manneken Pis. Upon arrival we were told to store our bags in the train station lockers and be back at 7:30 PM. In evaluating out options for the day we decided to hit the first task at a nearby brewery. Four other teams had a similar idea, so we had to up our game. Our task was to film a commercial for this Belgian brewers Framboise (raspberry) beer that might appeal to the US audience. Rather than tell you about it, I will let you have a look for yourself, here.

Our plan of attack was to do a high point value challenge outside of Brussels, but I wanted to see the Atomium, an attraction built for the Worlds Fair in 1958. The shape of the silver aluminum clad structure is based on an iron crystal…magnified 165 billion times. Elizabeth and I had a LASER-like focus as we were planning our day while riding the subway on our way to the Atomium. At one point when we looked up there were no other people, which only made sense when we realized that we had missed the last stop and were in the train yard. Yup, we were the savvy travelers sent to test out this game that ended up in a train yard. We didn’t know if the train was going to move again before the end of the day or if perhaps someone might notice us. We did have a good laugh though. It was only several minutes before train personnel walked past and we were able to get their attention to secure our release.

While the Atomium was an interesting structure, it was a little light on content in the exhibits inside. There was a north pole/south people exhibit which was rather weak in comparison to the Antarctica exhibit I had seen in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Atomium took a bigger bite out of our day time-wise than we estimated so we had to get moving to catch a train to Antwerp for our next challenge.

When getting back on the subway Elizabeth chatted with a guy, Hugos, for some information on getting to Antwerp. The information was infinitely helpful until we realized that we didn’t need to go to Antwerp at all, but rather to a town called Namur. Elizabeth again asked Hugos about our destination to which he replied, “Namur, I live there. I am going there right now”. We immediately hitched our wagon to his star. Hugos was beyond kind in getting us to the proper train station in Brussels, showing us where to get tickets and loading us on the train. Better than that though, he called his wife to do some research for us on the citadel that we had to visit AND was going to give us a ride there once the train arrived in Namur.

People always ask me what the best part of traveling is. This was it; the kindness of strangers. There have been dozens of times in my travels that complete strangers have helped me out from something as simple as pointing me in the right direction to taking me in their home, feeding me and having me stay for the night…or three.

Again, I don’t want to reveal all the tasks we had done as they may well be repeated by future Competitourists, but we did have to hurry so as to catch a train back to Brussels and then with the whole group head to our next destination. I will say though that Elizabeth was a champ; running when needed, having no regard for personal embarrassment and even descending a steep, sheer bank for the sake of a video.

Just as we were finishing our video the grace and kindness of another stranger happened upon us. Clare was a student from France doing an internship in Namur and was out for a walk. Clare did a little filming for us and then walked us down through town and to the train station. As we had a few minutes before our train, we bought Clare and ourselves waffles of the countries namesake.

Namur was a delightful city; big enough to have everything you might need, but small enough to keep its charm and not be overwhelming. I was sad to leave without having the opportunity to really check it out, but that was the nature of the trip.

We made it back to the Brussels train station with just enough time to meet the rest of the group and collect our train tickets to the next destination, Paris. While in Belgium I didn’t get to eat moule frites or even see the Manneken Pis statue for that matter, I was going home in a way; to a city that I lived for a year and a half. Paris.

Our arrival in Paris was prior to midnight, but not by much. As a small group of us walked out of the train station there was some uncertainty as to where our hotel was. I simply said, while pointing, “It’s this way” and began walking. The group didn’t seem convinced I was right and opted not to follow. I walked to the hotel, checked in, got cleaned up and headed over towards Elizabeth’s hotel to grab her for dinner and a planning session. It was the first time on the trip that the whole group was not in the same hotel. For some reason the Parisians don’t particularly care to have large groups of people in their hotels at one time, so we had to split the group in two. As I was leaving I saw another gathering of our crew standing on a street corner unable to locate the hotel. I pointed them in the right direction and met up with Elizabeth for a late dinner of Entrecôte, which is a Parisian staple, a glass of wine and a strategy session for the following day. None of this lent itself to getting back to my hotel prior to 2:30.