red echo

A web journal by Mars Saxman

January entries

Archived Entries for December, 2006

December 31, 2006

December 28, 2006

Four first-time skiers

December 27, 2006

Wind and snow at Lake Tahoe

Carolyn's birthday

December 26, 2006

On the way across the Sierra

December 25, 2006

December 23, 2006

Greenland, from 30,000 feet

December 19, 2006

We have learned how to haggle. It's actually sort of fun, now that we've worked out the rules and gained more experience with the goods on offer and the prices they customarily command. Buying things in the medina takes a thick armor of self-confidence, but if you know exactly what you want and exactly how much you want to to pay for it, and keep firmly in mind the fact that you can always find what you want somewhere else, you can make some truly astounding bargains. Each transaction is a little bit of entertainment, too; our best scores came with some great stories (like the one about the guy who literally chased me down the street trying to lower his price enough for my budget - and eventually succeeded).

We spent the day wandering around the medina checking off our Christmas lists, figuring that was a good way to get the hang of a place whose public face is all about small-scale commerce. Marrakech has a much more extensive shopping district than Fes, though the selection of goods is not quite as broad. We didn't see any of the oddball nothing-but-antique-irons type places we ran across in Fes, though that could be just because commerce is separated more strictly into districts here. There is a corner with six or eight pottery shops, a street of mostly fabric shops, a clothes district, a leatherwork area, and so on. The goods, too, aren't quite as good as those we saw in the mountains or the desert; but that's to be expected, as the artistic energy in Moroccan craftwork flows from the Berber hinterlands to the cities, and not the reverse.

All roads eventually lead to the Djemaa el Fna, where every evening the restaurant pavilions roll out their kitchens and tables and send up a steaming cloud of cooking activity. Their hawkers are by far the most aggressive and ill-tempered we've encountered, to the point of occasionally taking offense and cursing us out if we walked by them to a competitor! With a good twenty or so nearly identical establishments offering nearly identical food, a big part of the decision ends up coming down to choosing the hawker who annoys us the least. Once settled, the food is pretty decent; it's lighter, faster stuff than the delicious home-cooked bread and tajine meals we had in the Sahara, but it's good enough.

The plaza also becomes a performance arena at night. We haven't seen any of the fabled snake charmers (perhaps it's too cold for snakes at this time of year?), but there are musical groups of various types, storytellers, games of skill and chance, ape-trainers, gymnasts, and even an entire troupe of “lady-boy” belly-dancers. None of this appears to be got up for the tourists, either; the stories and songs are in Arabic, the crowds forming rings around the performers' gas-powered lanterns are all Moroccan, and nobody seems to feel any reluctance to stare openly at the foreigners (or this particular foreigner, at least).

This is a different side of Morocco than we've seen before. It has all the jam-packed city energy we saw in Fes, but it's more open, both physically and in spirit. There is more light, more space, and less of a sense of mystery. There are more women out and around, and more women working behind shop counters.

This will be my last post from Morocco. Our time here is winding down, and we will soon fly back to the States to spend Christmas with our family in California. There is still plenty more of the country that we haven't seen, but I feel happy with the track we've made. We have spent most of our time in mountains and desert, which is exactly as it should be, and once we made our friends here we spent as much time with them as we could afford. I hope to return and visit them again someday.

December 18, 2006


We left chilly Ouarzazate first thing this morning and took a collective taxi across the gorgeous High Atlas mountains to Marrakech. First impression: it's actually warm here!

We found a cozy and cheap hotel in the medina near the Djemaa el Fna, the big central plaza that forms the heart of the city. It's a lively, open-feeling neighborhood, full of people. There are lots of international tourists here, too - it's strange to see so many people wearing foreign clothes after having spent all of our time so far in more out-of-the-way places.

This is our last stop in Morocco; we'd originally thought we might use Marrakesh as a base for other trips out to Casablanca or up in the Atlas, but we ended up loving the desert and extending our stay there as long as possible instead. Now we're going to spend the remaining days enjoying Marrakech (and doing some Christmas-present shopping).

December 17, 2006


We've left the Sahara behind and are rolling back toward urban civilisation; we expect to reach Marrakech tomorrow morning. We made a relaxed start after breakfast, packed up, said our goodbyes, and hit the road in a very crowded collective taxi. We'd normally think of a four-door Mercedes as a vehicle which can carry at most four passengers, plus a driver, but in Morocco the driver won't even leave until six people have paid fares and wedged themselves into the available space. It's efficient, but not exactly comfortable - perhaps tomorrow we'll take a bus instead.

Beautiful wide open desert and mountain scenery. Broad dry plains and soaring peaks- ahhh. Lovely place.

We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant tonight. It felt strange after a week of friendly family style dinners with Berbers - we were halfway through the first course before we realized we had yet to touch the utensils they'd given us.

I'm feeling suddenly very tired and think I will wrap this up and go to bed. Still getting over the cold, though feeling much better. It doesn't help that indoor heating is almost unknown in this country, and we have to spend a lot of energy just keeping warm.

December 15, 2006


Time, as every traveller observes, uncompresses itself when you're exploring somewhere new. It's been a week since my last visit to an Internet cafe, but it feels like there are months of story to tell.

Time is somewhat limited, and this ancient PC's keyboard is wretched, so I'll stick to the highlights:

Left Azrou by bus. Blizzard in the Atlas Mountains. Stayed overnight in the small town of Midelt while several inches of snow fell. Roads closed, buses not running. What to do? Hotel manager packs us off with another couple of stranded tourists in an ancient taxi with no heater, and manages to cheat us and the driver in the same transaction. We are saved by a friendly Saharan Berber who happens to be going the same way we are in a very nice 4x4. Long night, arrive in the Sahara, sleep.

In Sahara: beautiful desert. It looks as good as the pictures, and more. Endless variety, details to look at everywhere. We head out into the dunes on dromedaries. Camping in a traditional wool tent at an oasis, campire, singing. Further on: of all things, a rainstorm! In the Sahara! This happens usually once a year, Omar says, but this year it's been unusually wet. We get very cold, fall sick. Not quite as fun making our way back. We hole up in our mud-brick hotel, a mile or so outside the village of Merzouga, and work on recovery.

Yesterday: a day trip back out of the desert, to Erfoud. We visit a hammam: hot steamy air and a good clean feeling. Laundry, restock supplies, “Berber pizza” for lunch. Beautiful desert sunset on the way back out: this place is all I had hoped it would be.

Berber hospitality lives up to its reputation. We've been spending a lot of time with Brahim, who gave us a ride out of the snow, and his brother Omar. They've been taking great care of us and have an easy way of making us feel welcome. A world away from the pressure and hustle in Fs.

We'd planned to take a long trip via Land Rover through the eastern desert, then come up to Marrakesh via Zagora; may end up skipping that and taking the bus direct via Ouarzazate instead. Less stress, better for getting healthy. We're seeing plenty of desert here anyway.

So much to tell! What an amazing place. The souk, with its mud, megaphone hawkers, and donkey parking lot. Almost every building made of mud. The road to Merzouga was only built a couple of years ago; before that you had to take a 4x4 across the wide-open desert. Internet access only arrived two months ago, and this is as far as it goes. Wide open vistas... ahh.

Ok, time is running out. Time to go mail off some postcards and buy some more water.

December 10, 2006


December 9, 2006

Sources of the Oum-er-Rbia

December 8, 2006


East to the Sahara, we decided. We want to see the desert and have adventures, so we might as well go find them. Bought a warm wool blanket and a couple of hats and headed for the bus station. We are staying for the night in a hill town of the mid-Atlas, called Azrou. It's very wet here and the principal industry seems to be logging. Not exactly what one thinks of first in association with the word “Morocco,” yet here it is. Hotel is a charming outfit on the Place Mohammed V (he was the king at independence, and the principal street in every town seems to have been named after him) with all the essentials - it feels like luxury at about 15 dollars a night, though our perspectives on the matter have changed somewhat while we've been in this country.

iF the weather clears tomorrow we will try some hiking. There are some springsd and waterfalls near here that are reputed to be very beautiful - and barbary apes in the trees.

People are just as friendly out here but less pushy about their sales pitches. It can still be draining, though; we spent a chilly twenty minutes on the way over to the “Cyber Canadien” from dinner, getting to know a friendly young man who was very excited about the chance to practice his English. Very excited. So excited, in fqct, that he went on to invite us to meet his family tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be excited about this opportunity to learn more about Moroccan home life, but Fes has made me wary, and the idea of playing audience for a few hours leaves me distinctly unenthused.

It is very cold out here.

The keys on this keyboard do not produce the letters that are printed on them. I am not used to including this much trial-and-error in the process of typing.

There is a surprisingly large mosque by the bus station, across from the big rock (“azrou”) that gives the town its name. We were told that the town of Azrou contains the fourth mosque built in Morocco, after Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. I don't completely believe the tale, but there is cleqrly some jkind of significqnce to the place.

December 7, 2006

Still in Fes. We dove into the medina on our own today, bypassing all the would-be guides, and explored any old way that struck us. This is really a living city - in every other random doorway, it seems, you can see someone sewing, pounding out brass, rewiring electric motors, slaughtering chickens, tooling leather, carving wood, gutting fish - everywhere you look, people are making things, trading things, cooking food, carrying on a vigorous economic life on a scale much smaller than we are accustomed to finding in the States.

Despite all warnings of inevitable confusion should we brave the depths of the medina sans guide, we had no trouble getting ourselves as lost as we liked and then finding our way back out again. We did eventually find a vague and incomplete map, but it didn't help much; navigation was a matter of watching the streams of people and the shape of the land, and asking directions from strangers.

Countless little adventures. Streams of people. Every corner, every street, every building is different. We stumbled across an old medresah, still in use - beautiful unrestored wood and tile work everywhere, ruined unused rooms, and students in their dorms across the courtyard hanging their laundry out on the fretwork balconies while they watched TV. We walked down one random passage and found a leather souk, hundreds of men bargaining over stacks of cured hides. Into another doorway, a kid with a blowtorch making what looked like teapot fittings.

We are getting by fine with English, Melissa's now-fluent Spanish, and my creaky fragments of French. Arabic is the true lingua franca here, not French, but everyone we've met has been eager to try out whatever bits of foreign languages they happen to speak. (I even had a short but satisfying conversation in German this afternoon with a student who spoke nothing but Deutsch and Arabic!)

Just heard the afternoon call to prayer, broadcast five times daily from the loudspeakers of various mosques throughout the city. I should wrap up and go confer with Melissa about evening plans. Tomorrow we'll probably head onward - not sure yet whether we're going east, across the Atlas, to the Sahara, or southwest to Casablanca.

December 6, 2006


Wow. Not sure what to think yet. It's pretty intense. We are in a greqt little place just inside Fes el Bali, which is the old medina. We hired an official guide from the tourist bureau to take us around, but he was pretty much only interested in taking us to places that would sell us things, and took off adter we got more assertive. Oh well. The medina is a maze for sure, but I think we are up to it. it takes a lot of energy, though, dealing with the endless sales pitches.

such an amazing place - medieval and yet a living city. Men walking mules down streets no wider than an American sidewalk, past the open door of a "teleboutique" stocked with computers as modern as anything back home. Men beating iron into scrollwork, schoolchildren running along in modern (if conservative) clothing, piles of meat next to piles of dates next to racks of film and batteries. So much good food! Wish we had a kitchen.

Train trip here from Tangier was good. Met a pair of tourists from Libya and a couple on their way to Egypt for their honeymoon. Melissa's Spanish gave a couple hours of conversation with la femme while I bodged my way along in French and English with the Libyan computer engineer.

Spent some little time at medersa (madrassah) Bounania. Gorgeous, detailed, finely worked stone and wood. Clearly of the same design tradition that created the Alhambra's Nasarid palace, though not so highly developed. It has an active mosque.

I have seen only one other head full of blonde hair here - a dreadlocked tourist, possibly Australian. (Everyone thinks we are Australians because we speak English but aren't British. Apparently very few American tourists come here.) With my obviously foreign clothes and startling pale hair I get stares everywhere I go - but they seem friendly enough. Everyone here has been friendly so far, in fact - sometimes so much so that it gets tiring.

so much going on - every day is full almost beyond my ability to absorb. this is every bit as strange and absorbing a place as I had hoped to find.

December 5, 2006

December 4, 2006

We're in Tangier and so far it's great. This is definitely not like anywhere I've been before.

My camera's memory card died yesterday, so I lost all of my photos of the Alhambra. Oh well - wouldn't have done it justice anyway.

The keyboard here is a French 'azerty' layout with Arabic letters added on in red. Definitely takes some getting used to.

Excited. Happy. Tired. Looking forward to the morrow.

December 3, 2006

Apologies, first, for yesterday's terrible rain joke.

Still in Granada: my sister needs to mail some things home, and the post office is not open on Sundays - which gives us an excellent excuse to spend some more time in this lovely city.

The Moorish influence is visible everywhere, from architecture to cuisine, and it's an exciting prelude to the adventure we'll begin tomorrow. We spent most of the afternoon at the Alhambra, whose royal palace is lovely beyond my ability to describe, or to capture in photos (not that I didn't try the latter).

It's late, the internet cafe closes soon, and I must go pack. Tomorrow, Africa!

December 2, 2006

The rain in Spain may fall mainly in the plain, but it seems that hilly Granada is not immune. It is a light, Seattle-style rain, however, so it incommodes one very little.

My sister lives in a huge apartment with four other women, all students at the language school she attends. Tonight we are all going out to see a flamenco performance at a bar somewhere. Further bar-crawling may follow. I took a jet-lag-induced nap this afternoon, so I should be ready to stay up all night, should the need arise. Tomorrow, after all, is Sunday.

Good wine is very cheap here, and comes with tapas. You can apparently skip from place to place all afternoon or evening, drinking the whole time, and never need to pay for food. Just stick to wine or beer - my “vodka martini with olives” came as a strangely sweet, dark-colored liquid in a tumbler with ice, accompanied by a small dish of olives. Or, really, just stick to wine - it's worth it.

The elevators here number the ground floor “zero.” This makes me unreasonably happy.

Fresh socks also make me happy: my bag is here, covered in “rush” stickers.


I'm hanging out in an internet cafe with my sister. This place clearly knows its audience: all of the machines are running Linux, and there are large posters of characters from anime, comics, and fantasy movies on the walls, plus a couple of random M. C. Escher prints. I'd forgotten that each European country has its own keyboard layout; I keep typing accents instead of apostrophes.

Despite the friendly Iberia agent's confident claim yesterday, my bag has yet to arrive. I am not at all surprised. Oh well - time to go shopping.

Jet lag is a bit weird. I slept only a few hours on the plane, and felt tired enough to fall asleep quickly last night, but could have slept for a few hours more when I finally got up at 1 PM. Spain has a late-night culture, however, so I should get by just fine should I find myself still wide awake at 2 AM or something. (Plus, I spent nearly every weekend in November training hard for that exact situation...)

We've decided to spend an extra night in Granada, so we'll arrive in Morocco on Monday midday instead of late Sunday. This will give us plenty of time to deal with customs and the chaos that is reputed to be Tangier on our way to somewhere more inviting: probably Asilah.

December 1, 2006


Hello. I'm in Madrid using an amusingly awkward public internet terminal. Typing is slow!

I never check baggage when flying: the airline inevitably loses my luggage. This time I broke with precedent, thinking I wouldn't be able to fit a month's worth of clothes and gear into a carry-on, and of course forty minutes' wait at the baggage carousel turned up empty. well ok then! I think I am travelling pretty light, but maybe next time I will take it to an extreme.

On to Granada tonight, where I'll rendezvous with my sister at a certain cafe. Looking forward to it!

November entries

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Current reading

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
Touching the Void, Joe Simpson
Accelerando, Charles Stross
Lonely Planet Morocco, Simonis and Crowther
The Rough Guide to Morocco, Ellingham, Grisbrook, and McVeigh
Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit

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Suggest a book I might like