Friday, May 28, 2010


Lately I’ve been thinking about what the big differences are between Morocco and home. As I’ll be headed back to the US soon, I’ve started to imagine what reverse culture shock I’ll have when I get home. One of the big differences that I experience everyday is the street culture. I do a lot of walking here and am constantly bothered by the noisy diesel motorcycles (the most common kind are old Peugeot motorcycles that you have to pedal to get started or to go up hill), the honking cars, motorists’ lack of regard for pedestrians, and endless construction that forces one to change one’s route almost on a weekly basis. Rabat is undergoing a citywide transformation and the construction projects are everywhere. From one day to the next entire street corners are uplifted, sidewalks are closed, and whole sections of the street are forced to give way to the power of the jackhammer. This is done with no official warning to motorists. Plus, it seems that focus is on beginning as many projects as possible, with the goal of finishing put on the sidelines. The only project I’ve seen finished was the bike path and sidewalk on a main strip leading to the old medina. It came out quite nice. There is a special lane for bikes, and lots of fancy pedestrian crossing signs. However, most of the projects, including the sub Kasbah tunnel and Salé-Rabat tramline don’t look like they’ll be finished for years. It’s wonderful that Rabat is undergoing such a huge transformation but I just think that instead of gradually re-doing the whole city at once, small patches should have been started and completed instead.

The picture that I’ve attached to this post is of a bridge that helps people cross the tram line construction on foot. You can’t tell from this angle but with my injured back, this was really quite scary to descend. I laugh when I encounter things like this. It’s so incredible to experience street crossings in California and then this. At the same time, it was nice that an effort was even made to help people cross the tramline construction. This is Africa after all.

Traffic here is ten times crazier than Mexico City traffic. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve closed my eyes thinking my taxi was going to be involved in a crash. The good thing about all of the construction here is that the traffic gets so bad that people really aren’t able to build up any speed in the city. So, any crash usually ends up being quite minor. When something does happen, the drivers get so upset. I’ve seen so much frustration and anger on the part of the drivers here. It’s not only among motorists that I observe those sentiments, however. I find many of the young men here to get angry from such minor incidents. More fights than I’ve ever seen have broken out during this year’s annual music festival. I can’t help but blame the rampant sexual repression for the frustration and anger I see among men here. That, coupled with a culture that doesn’t practice much sport (in my part of the city it’s rare to see people running along the coast for example) creates a lot of pent up energy within the male population. Fighting and harassing women is the obvious effect.

The way people drive here is what you would expect of a place that has few road signs, no marked lanes, and no uniform standards for intersections. There is on intersection near where I work that requires people who want to go straight (continue on the street they were on), to turn off of the street, wait at an intersection, and turn back onto the street.

About two months ago I saw something I would never, in a million years, see in the US. There was a red light at a busy intersection when I saw a man got out of his car (he was driving) and walk to the driver of the car stopped behind him. My first thought was, “wow, there is going to be a huge argument in the middle of the street. The driver must be really pissed off if he chose to get out of his car to say or do whatever he needed to. Well, it turns out that my assumption was completely wrong. The man had gotten out of his car so he could properly greet his friend in the car behind him. A few days ago I saw this happen on a smaller street. These moments, in my opinion, are the exact opposite of what one would experience in the US. If traffic laws were to even allow such behavior, it wouldn’t matter because Americans, for the most part, are pretty cold when it comes to greeting people we know. In Morocco, people always stop and take the time so greet someone on the street. Often the exchange involves both people talking at once (otherwise it would take nearly too long for both parties to get their salutations in). It’s really funny to hear an entire conversation of people responding to questions at the same time that they’re hearing the questions. I imagine they conversations sound similar to this,
S: “Hello Khadija, how are you? That’s so great to hear. How are your husband, and your children? And your mother in-law, is she feeling better now? Oh I’m doing just fine. My family is all well, thanks to Allah.”
K: “Oh hi Samah, how are you doing? Are you doing well? Thanks to Allah, I’m doing well. And my children, they’re doing well just as I hope that you’re family is doing well. I heard the good news about your eldest son. It’s wonderful news. I’ll see you soon. Peace be with you.”

(This exchange, as I mentioned, would be held simultaneously). I’ve tried to include a recording of this which happens outside of my window all of the time.

The final thing I would like to mention is honking. Here in Morocco, honking serves quite a different purpose than it does in the US. If you’re at a stoplight in the US and you hear honking, usually it means that you’re not paying attention and that the people behind you have finally grown impatient. Stoplights here, like any street signage, are understandably very low budget (Again I remind you that this is Africa). At most major intersections in Rabat, you’ll have one stoplight right on the corner. Unlike in the US where they’re hung in the middle of the intersection and visible by all, in Rabat they’re only visible to the 2nd or 3rd car in line. So, when you hear honking in an intersection, it’s more of an audio version of the green light. People don’t honk here because they’re impatient; they honk because the guy who is first or second in line at the light clearly won’t know it’s turned green otherwise.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day Trip to Casablanca

To celebrate Mau’s birthday and Valentine’s Day, we decided to visit Casablanca. This was my first time going into the city and my visit was much overdue. Mau and I took the train from Rabat Centre Ville to Casa Port.
The trip took about an hour. We arrived and immediately took a taxi to the Grand Mosque Hassan II in order to catch the last tour of the day. All but two of the mosques in the country of Morocco are closed to non-Muslims. The only way to see the Hassan II mosque is with a tour. The mosque sits on the coast and has the tallest minaret in the world. Having come from Rabat, where no buildings are really that big, the mosque appears absolutely giant. The tour lasted a bit over an hour. Our guide gave us lots of time for pictures and in my case, time for general gazing in wonderment. Most, if not all, parts of the mosque come from national resources. The hand-carved cedar frames for the balconies come from the Middle Atlas, the marble is from Agadir, and the granite is from Tafraoute. The building was finished just in 1993 (it started in 1980) and the construction cost more than half a billion dollars.

First we entered the prayer hall. I was first amazed with the detail of the design. Every last centimeter is intricately carved, tiled, or painted. The wood of the balconies is incredibly carved and it’s amazing to consider that despite the meters and meters of balcony, all of the wood was done by hand. Everything was so intricately designed: the roof, the pillars, the tiled walls, the doors, and the floor. The reason I find mosques so beautiful is the same reason why they are considered to be restricted in terms of design. The fact that idol representation (via paintings, statues, etc.) is forbidden, forces designers to use simple shapes, carvings, and script for decoration. Usually when EVERY corner is highly decorated of a building it is tacky and over-the-top. But in this mosque, the simple shapes and carvings allows the design to be intricate and still tasteful at the same time.

After visiting the mosque, we headed to the Blvd de la Corniche, known for its beach clubs and restaurants. It looked similar to the coastal area of Tangier but generally less run-down. Mau and I were starving at this point, so we had a quick lunch and then flirted with the idea of going to the movies. Rabat has no major movie theatre that shows the big movies that come out of the US and Europe. The problem with the Casablanca movie theatres, besides the fact that you have to go to Casablanca to see something, is that they’re all dubbed. We opted not to see a movie and decided to go on a short walk along the coast (which actually means along the massive construction projects overlooking the coast). I was impressed with the cleanliness of the beach and wondered how polluted the water of Rabat really is if the Casablanca ocean water seems cleaner in comparison. After enjoying a construction-free spot to sit and watch the waves and the people, we went into town to look for a nice café to have a coffee. We took a taxi to the Quartier Goethier. Along a tiny street called Ibn Rachid, we found some cafés. This particular area reminded me a lot of La Condesa in Mexico City. There were a few nice cafés and one Irish pub all tucked into a residential area with lots of trees and tiny tiny streets. The parallel parkers of this area must be equally as skilled as those that frequent La Condesa and La Roma in Mexico City. After a coffee and a tea à la menthe (my drink of choice), we headed back to the train station to catch the 8pm train. I’m glad to have finally visited Casa and I am anxious to go again (the train ticket is less than $10 round-trip) to either see a movie or to go to a nice restaurant.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christmas Vacation Part 2

Mau and I spent Christmas with family friends who live in a town called Chens-Sur-Leman, on the French side of the Geneva area. Our trip there wasn’t as easy as one would expect from the high-speed TGV trains. The heavy snow leading up to Christmas caused a lot of delays with the trains. I think the combination of the normal Christmas hustle and bustle with the extra travelers who opted to visit families by train instead of drive in the snow made for a very hectic trip to the Haute-Savoie region. After barely getting tickets, Mau and I left out of Charles de Gaulle Airport on a delayed train. With only half-an-hour layover in Lyon, we knew we weren’t going to make the connection. Lots of people missed our train in Lyon so we tagged along behind the angry SNCF customers who were all fighting to get customer service to help them find a connection. We were able to get on another train and arrived to the Bons-en-Chablais station where Molly’s poor husband had been waiting for us for over an hour.

Our time with the Morizon family was fantastic. Molly and Alain made us feel right at home. It was nice to be in a tranquil town after the craziness of Rabat and Paris. The first day Mau and I went shopping with Molly. We had some more vin chaud from the members of the community who were giving it away out by one of the shopping centers we visited. There was also a Santa there giving away special French Christmas chocolates. We ended going to two different markets that day and in front of one of them they had alpacas on display. It was definitely bizarre to see them in France like that. I was way too intimidated by Molly’s cooking to offer any help in the kitchen. So, I did my best to help set and clear the table and wash dishes. A lot of our time was spent at the kitchen table, talking with Molly as she cooked. One night the three of us watched a movie (Atonement) together and I explained to eager Molly what a handheld camera is and why the camerawork in Atonement was so incredible. Our dinners and lunches were also spent chatting about different topics. Alain insists upon keeping this French custom of talking at the table well after the meal has finished.

One our third day (December 24th), Mau and I went to Geneva. The Red Cross museum, which was our main destination, was closed for Christmas. With the pressure off to do something “cultural” we were content to wander around the city and stop into places when we felt the desire. Our first stop was Starbucks. It was a nice treat after being away from it for a few months. We ordered in English from a cute Asian guy, who spoke back to us with hardly any accent. I chatted with a British couple that had ordered ahead of us. They had paid in the style of “here, I’ll show you the money in my hands and you take from them according to the price” and I commented that we were just there for the day and that I had no idea what the Swiss Franks were either. They thought I was Canadian, which I took as a huge compliment. Usually they would assume American based on my accent, but something about my personality must have triggered them to think that I was Canadian. Although, thinking back on it now, they should have know from all the layers I was wearing that I was definitely not from anywhere cold.

I was really impressed with the racial diversity of the people I saw in Geneva. In the always-packed-with-people-H&M, there was a Cuban family shopping for coats and a sub-Saharan African father and daughter also shopping (in addition to a bunch of Asian and white families). It’s obvious that a small city housing so many international organizations would be very diverse, but I hadn’t really thought about it until I actually spent time in Geneva. After stocking up on a few things at H&M, we continued to explore the city. We watched the ducks and the swans in the lake and took lots of pictures. Just before nightfall, we ended up at the St. Pierre Cathedral. Inside, there were carolers rehearsing for the Christmas Eve service happening later that evening. The director of the choir was instructing them in English, which I found a bit odd until I read the pamphlet explaining that they belong to the Anglican Protestant Church of Geneva. After watching rehearsal, I got a big craving to sing and convinced Mau to stay for mass. It was great! Soon the Cathedral was packed with upper-middle class and upper class families, all speaking English. It was such a trip to be with that population having been in Morocco, but also not having expected to be anywhere English speaking during that particular trip to Europe. For an hour that night, I felt like I was in England going to Christmas Eve Mass. One thing that I appreciated about the Cathedral was the simplicity of the cross. Having visited so many Mexican churches for the last few years, I felt a nice sense of relief to be in a church that didn’t have a humongous bloody statue of Christ on the crucifix. I always feel uncomfortable when I enter Catholic churches and see such monstrous replicates of Christ’s final moments. The statues with nappy cheap manikin hair put me particularly ill at ease. Anyway, the service that night was nice and there was lots and lots of singing. Mau was so happy to be there because it was his first time having mass in English. He was impressed with the amount of singing and learned lots of new words. I don’t know enough to tell him that Protestants are known for singing a lot but I do know that the Protestant church I frequented in Santos, São Paulo sang a whole lot. The most memorable piece of the night (a tribute to Swizerland) was a song sung in Italian, German, and French.

That night, we met one of Molly and Alain’s daughters, Anne. She had flown in from London to spend Christmas with the family. We got along well and I wish that she had been there a few days earlier so we could have spent more time with her. Christmas day was lovely. Molly had made a promise to herself to keep the meal and the festivities “low key,” so she made Turkey sandwiches to take on our hike in the mountains. The five of us drove for about 45 minutes before parking the car to begin the hike. Alain was dressed like an Austrian mountain guide. He had knee-high-socks tucked into thick dark green corduroy knee-length pants. His outfit and his determination to lead us to the monastery without following the path were the source of lots of laughter from us women. Mom and Phoebe and I could never have laughed at my dad the way Molly and Anne did that day. I came to understand and love Alain that day. Ultimately, we didn’t make it to the Monastery by foot that day. Our sandwiches of homemade mayonnaise, turkey, and mache (I had told Molly about my new discovery), accompanied with champagne were enjoyed as we hiked back down towards the car. By this point the shoes Mau was borrowing had completely fallen apart. The sole of the right one had come off from the heel just after we started the hike, but by the end, both of his heels were tap-tap taping along the pavement. He didn’t complain at all during the snowy hike. At one point Anne gave him one of her socks to wear since his was completely soaked. She had to offer it to him since he hadn’t said anything about being uncomfortable. He was such a good sport. I came to love him even more during that hike.

Later that afternoon, the Morizon family hosted some friends for champagne and lox. A very nice French Swiss family came. It felt good to speak French. One of the children of the family stuck around with us later that evening. He, Anne, Molly, Mau, and I played poker together by the fire.

The next morning Mau and I said our good-byes and headed to Milan via train. Molly was kind enough to drive us to the Geneva train station early in the morning. Her hospitality continued until the last second as she bought us a newspaper and a bottle of Swiss water for the ride. The train ride to Milan was spectacular. I got no reading done during the trip because my eyes were glued to the windows. The lake, the towns along the way, and the snow-covered Alps were breathtaking. Never before have I passed by a place with very little knowledge of it and wanted so badly to move there on the spot.

View of the valley from our hike.

French Christmas candy with joke included.

Molly with the alpacas.

View from the train to Milan.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas Vacation - Part 1

Friday, January 1, 2010

Today was my first full day back in Rabat after over two weeks of traveling. It’s always a great feeling to come back home after traveling and I think this last trip was one of the longest I’ve ever done.

Mau and I started our voyage in Marrakech since the best flight we could find to Paris was from there. Our flight left on Wednesday so we took the train to Marrakech early Tuesday morning. Since our time there was brief, we weren’t able to do any of the day trips that Marrakech tour offices offer. So, we stuck around the city Tuesday afternoon and evening. The big square in the medina of Marrakech is famous for its fortune tellers, snake charmers, and monkeys accompanied by their owners. Since snakes and domesticated monkeys gross me out, the big square (Djemaa el-Fna) wasn’t a great place for me. Apparently it is a famous area for nighttime story telling but since I don’t speak Moroccan Arabic, I wasn’t going to be able to appreciate it. In all, Marrakech was surprising for its sharp distinction between the poor medina area which was just a few minutes walk away from the fairly wealthy Ville Nouvelle. Mau and I walked from the hustle-and-bustle of Djemaaa el-Fna (where our hotel was) to a nice café in the Ville Nouvelle in just about 15 minutes. I’m very grateful that I don’t live in Marrakech because so many tourists pass though that I would never be able to distinguish myself from them if I were to live there. What’s nice about Rabat is that it’s really not a big destination for tourists. I can walk though the market of the medina and enter my neighborhood without people hassling me to get a henna tattoo or to sell me a rug. Tuesday evening Mau and I decided to do the double-decker bus tour of the city since we weren’t going to be able to explore it well with the little time we had. My general conclusion of Marrakech, architecturally, is that it’s an Arab version of Phoenix. All of the new buildings are made of the same desert red and a lot of the city is newly developed and quite sterile compared to other Moroccan cities.

Our flight was with Easy Jet. It sounds like a pretty sketchy airline but a lot of my coworkers here have used it so we decided to go with them. The flight was fine and the service was pretty straightforward. Ryan Air, which we came back on, was a lot stricter about boarding passes and weight limits. We got to Paris in the late afternoon. I think our first impression of Paris was the prices since we had to take the train from Charles de Gaulle into the city. A one-way ticket cost us €8.50 ($12.25 US)! The train took us into the Les Halles station and Mau and I got out there to find a place to have lunch. We were surprised at how cold it was but assumed that it was normal temperature for that time of year. My first meal was a Croque Madame (open faced ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top) and Mau had a ham and cheese crêpe followed by a chocolate crêpe. While we were eating we were eyeing a man next to us who had ordered “vin chaud.” It came in a wine glass with an orange and he mixed in some sugar as well. Since the man ordered two, we were able to watch the process of how one prepares vin chaud. After eating, Mau and I split one. It was delicious! It came with cinnamon in addition to the orange. This lunch was absolutely necessary because it was my way of celebrating being out of an Islamic country. I ate ham and drank alcohol at a corner café!

We met up with Claire later that night. She lives in a great little apartment across from the Chateau Vincennes. It was great to see Claire and it was especially nice to see her living her life in Paris. The first thing we talked about was how cold it was. Mau and I were relieved to hear that it was particularly cold for mid-December and that our sentiments about the cold were shared by many Parisians. Next, Claire explained to us that if we needed to crank the heat up in the living room where we were going to be sleeping that we didn’t have to worry about her energy bill since she gets a hefty discount for working for the electricity company itself! We agreed that it wouldn’t be very green of us to do that but I assured her that the three years I’ve been living without central heating will offset her carbon footprint for putting the heat on high.

Thursday morning Mau and I woke up see the streets and the castle outside Claire’s apartment covered with snow. It was beautiful and I was so excited to explore the city in a way I had never seen it before. We hit all of the major monuments that first day: the Arc de Triomphe (including another vin chaud along the Champs Élysées), the Eiffel Tower, and Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. Everything was so beautiful in the snow and it was neat to take pictures of the monuments because all of my pictures seem to have been taking with the sepia setting. We had a late lunch that day. Our meal was memorable not so much for the food but for the hospitality of the two young guys that work at the café. Mau and I were near the Champs Élysées at the time but we were able to find a place nearby that had set menus for fairly cheap. Mau got a quiche and a duck dish, and I had a chicken dish and an apple tart. We were the last customers of the day but didn’t feel pressured to leave at all. In fact, the two guys working there started their huge meal as we were finishing. They were curious to hear about Morocco and Mexico and we had quite an interesting conversation about the geology of the land in Morocco, Mexico, and Arizona. That night we went to the movies at the Forum Les Halles. We saw Big Fish (which I hadn’t seen) at an art film type of place. To see movies in English in Morocco you have to go all the way to Casablanca. Needless to say, Mau and I were excited to be able to go to the movies.

On Saturday Román, Claire’s boyfriend, took us to visit Versailles. It was great to see him and spend the day together. Unfortunately, the gardens of the castle were closed due to the snow so the most beautiful part of Versailles, so I hear, will have to be seen the next visit. That night, Mau and I went with Claire to see her dive in a show she and her teammates put on for the kids that swim at the community pool where she trains. Not only were we impressed with the diving, but Mau and I were amazed with the facilities. There were jumping castles in the water and a great water slide that went all around. People were even taking scuba diving classes there. After the show, we ate raclette in Claire and Román’s apartment. Raclette is a Swiss/French treat, usually eaten in the winter. There is a special raclette cheese that is used because it melts without burning or sticking to the pan and it pours easily over the potatoes. Claire and Román have a special round raclette grill that they put in the center of our table. We grilled a bunch of different meats on top, such as jamón Serrano, ham, and salami. Having just been in Morocco, this was an especially great dinner for the pork products. As you grill the meats on the top part of the grill, the cheese melts underneath. It was so delicious and kept us quite warm at the table.

Sunday morning, I slept in late while Mau went to the Louvre. My intention was to get train tickets to nearby Compiègne but the SNCF (French train company) was packed with Christmas travelers and the automated machines didn’t take my foreign credit card. The SNCF trains ended up being a big source of anxiety for me during the trip. The snowy highways during Christmas caused a lot more travelers to choose train over driving their own cars and the lines to buy tickets were horribly long. In the end, all of the tickets we needed were bought but I learned from this trip that flying into Europe is the easy part. It’s getting around once you’re there that’s expensive and time consuming.

That afternoon Mau and I met up with a friend of his from Mexico. His friend, Beto, is currently in Paris during an internship in his field of medical neurology. He lives in the Cité Universitaire so we met him there so he could give us a tour. The Cité Universitaire, for those who don’t know, is an area where students in various schools throughout Paris live in beautiful historic dormitories that represent different countries in the world. Beto lives in the Casa de Mexico, which houses 80% Mexican students. The other students are either placed there or chose to live there. Across from the Casa de Mexico is the gigantic building for Americans, and next to that, is the British dormitory. We walked all around and saw many architecturally important buildings. The Brazilian house, for example, was built by a Brazilian architect who worked with Oscar Niemeyer in the construction of Brasilia. I would have killed to have lived in an area like the Cité Universitaire during college. Each building hosts parties and students gather together to eat at the many cafeterias and stroll within the few parks on campus.

On Monday, Mau and I took a day trip to Compiègne* to visit Pierre. He picked us up at the train station and we walked through the town a little bit. We stopped in café to have a coffee but as soon as Pierre ordered a beer, I opted for a Leffe beer and Mau got another vin chaud (the best of the trip according to him). After enjoying our drinks, we walked to Pierre and Odile’s house which I had never seen before. Odile was very nice and it was such a pleasure to meet her and to see their house. We all had an aperitif in the living room and chatted for a while. After that, we headed to the dining room where a grand meal awaited our unsuspecting palates. I’m going to list the meal and let the items sink in. It was hands down, one of the best meals I’ve ever and probably will ever have in my life.

appetizer: mâche (lamb's lettuce) with foie gras and an aperatif.
main entrée: roast beef, sautéed green beans and fresh peas, roasted potatoes, and red wine (it was a nice wine but I was so overwhelmed with the meal at that point that I couldn’t focus on the wine to remember how it tasted or what grape it was)
salad and cheese course: platter of four different cheeses, including an incredible Roquefort (not only was it the first Roquefort I liked, but I LOVED it), and a tasty gruyere, accompanied with more mâche and a light dressing.
dessert: apricot tart and coffee.

It was sad to leave Compiègne after such a short visit but the next day we were headed to the Haute-Savoie region and we had to get back to Paris.

* Compiègne is a town about an hour from Paris where I did a two-week cultural and language exchange as a junior in high school. I have still kept in contact with Pierre, the high school English teacher who does the French side of the exchange, but I hadn’t been back to Compiègne since 2001.