Sunday, July 17, 2011

Working in DC

Well I have been back in the US for about a month and a half now. I'm currently working in Washington DC at the Department of State in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. I'll be returning to OH sometime around mid-August. Stay tuned for posts about my time in Morocco and more photos!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Crossing God's Bridge to Paradise: Salvation by Muhammad

So a lot of things have developed in the last week that need to be addressed. Namely, the bombing of a cafe' in Marrakech, Labor Day Protests, and now the death of Osama Bin Laden but I will first address my birthday weekend.

So I celebrated my 22nd Birthday with a trip to the North of Morocco to a town known as Chefchaouen. Chefchaouen is well known for a couple of things: 1 - Its old city which is completely painted blue, 2 - its hiking, as it is nestled in the Rif Mountains, and 3 - its hashish.It was supposed to be a five hour bus ride from Rabat to Chefchaouen however, the bus that I happened to be on with some of my classmates broke down and we were delayed for a couple of hours (it ended up taking us a total of 8 hours). To make it worse, the guy who sat next to me this whole time was intent on convincing me to buy some of his family's hash. And, as he said, if I didn't want to smoke any of it, I could just come to the farm and see the whole process from the fields to the bags. I politely declined, several times.

Once in Chefchaouen we ate, explored a little, but decided to get to bed as we planned to hike the next day. Our plan was to hike in an area of the Rif Mountains known as Paradise on our way to God's Bridge, a very high natural bridge over a canyon and river.

As we slowly made our way out of bed we looked out the window of our hostel to witness the beautiful sight of the clouds falling away down the mountains as the sun climbed into the sky. It was an absolutely gorgeous spectacle.
We took a 45-minute taxi ride (for $4) out to the bottom of the trail up to God's Bridge and began our journey. The trail followed the river up into the mountains getting steeper and higher and zigzagging up the mountain. (the trail and people on the trail are visible in this picture)

One of my classmates and I were insistent on exploring everything while we climbed, including climbing out to some cliffs overlooking the river.We continued to climb until God's bridge came into view as well as the trail we decided we wanted to hike down to the river on the other side of the valley. (looking down from the bridge)

Following our arrival at the bridge, we decided to stop for lunch. In the process of unpacking my lunch and my friend's lunch from my bag I dropped both off the cliff we were sitting on and they fell to a landing down the cliff a way. I was quite hungry and so was my friend so I decided to attempt to retrieve our lunch. In my quest down the cliff I was hanging on to a tree with my feet planted on the cliff. Part of the cliff gave away under my foot and I swung from one side of the tree to the other, smashing my nose against a branch in the process. I gave up trying to get our lunch and began to worry about my nose. My classmates took a look at it as it rapidly bruised and swelled. Faced with the prospect of a broken nose, I decided to continue our planned hike down the other side of the valley. This ended up being one of the craziest hikes of my life.

Literally, the "trail" was no more and we were descending down the side of a mountain that promised at the very least severe injury with a single misstep. We were sliding, grabbing, scaling and slowly making our way down.
At one point when we thought all was lost, we looked down to see a mountain man motioning for us to stop. Five minutes later he was standing next to us, barefoot, and Muhammad was his name. He managed to guide us down to the river safely but it took us much longer than 5 minutes.He then informed us that to hike back, we would need to hike down the river. This was an extremely cold, fast-flowing river. Several times we had to cross the river, clinging to rocks as water flowed quickly past us and holding on to cliffs on the side of the river to avoid being swept away.
After 45 minutes of hiking through the water with cold, cut up feet we arrived at a place where we could climb back up from the river to the trail and make our way back to Chefchaouen.
Overall, it was a great birthday weekend. Luckily, after visiting the UN clinic and getting an X-ray, it turned out my nose wasn't broken. Regardless, I celebrated my 22nd birthday by embarking on the most dangerous adventure of my life; and I loved every minute of it.

Drinking Liberally: Morocco

So here's the thing about bars/clubs in Morocco: you have to be careful where you go because it may just be a brothel. In fact, one of the main hotels of Rabat, Hotel Balima, where I stayed my first night in Morocco, has a "nightclub" in the basement full of prostitutes and prospective customers.

The other pitfall of Moroccan clubs/bars: the alcoholic selection. Consumption of alcohol by Moroccans is technically illegal though the law is not enforced. Plus, the sale of alcohol to a Moroccan is also illegal. These two factors combine to make bars, clubs, and places that sell/serve alcohol somewhat hard to find and a little shady.

Luckily in a surprising twist, travelers to Morocco have the French to thank for the existence of quality drinking establishments. Being a former French colony, Morocco is rife with French ex-pats and French culture, including alcohol.

All of this leads to a weekend of craziness and merriment. Some of the other students and I managed to find a "club" that was highly acclaimed as a Western-styled club with Western-style music. It also ended up having the cost of a Western-style club as well. However, it ended up being everything it was billed to be plus some. Moroccan youth live in such a repressive society, from both religion and cultural traditions, that when they get a chance to let loose, they let loose. It's like the old adage about someone who had really strict parents in high school and arrives in college to just become a party animal.

Hence, Moroccans have no self-control when it comes to alcohol. Even more, everyone was participating in the sexual freedom to get some action on and off the dance floor. Speaking of the dance floor, Moroccans are horrible at dancing. Their dancing maybe suited to an Arab wedding but that's about it. This makes for a rather odd scene at a Western-style club; lots of wedding dancing. Now, my friends and I are nothing special when it comes to dancing but we didn't need to be great dancers to impress in Morocco. We quickly took up the dance floor and the attention with a couple "neat" moves but many more corny, cheesy moves that would get us laughed off the dance floor in the US. Oh yea, we busted out the sprinkler, and people ate it up. We were the stars of the show all night long.

But alas, Moroccans party long and hard. There is only so long we could go dancing and drinking horribly over-priced bad beer. We headed home around 5:30am. My ears were still ringing the next day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting back to it: Marrakech and the Ourika Valley

So I realize it has been almost a month since my last post. I promise, there was good reason. Every single weekend for the last month has involved traveling somewhere. From just around Morocco to places like Madrid, Dublin, and London and there's more to come as I have booked a trip to Rome for Easter weekend.

Regardless, I plan to do several posts this week to get caught up on my adventures.

So, several weekends back I took the plunge and went to Marrakech for the weekend. Marrakech is known around the world as the tourist capital of Morocco and enjoys its stereotype as the quintessential Moroccan city. That perception is quite wrong. Marrakech is far from being the typical Moroccan city and is actually quite unpleasant for Moroccans and foreigners familiar with both Moroccan culture and language. However, the residents, store owners, and street vendors cater directly to this perception that hordes of tourists come to Marrakech to see. This includes storytelling, potion-making, snake charming, fire-throwing/eating, acrobatics, wild animals, street music, and all other imagined exotic ideas about Morocco. It makes for quite an event. All of these things come together in the central square of Marrakech where harassment reaches its peak. It is also full of tourists, particularly French tourists and nobody likes French tourists.
The first thing we sought to do (I was in a group of around 10 girls and one other guy) was find dinner. The main square is full of food vendors and they are quite relentless. They will grab you, pull you, and do anything they can to get you in their stall. Even worse, they all know English so there is no way to converse about things without them knowing. After settling on a vendor who promised us free tea, we proceeded to eat one of the worst Moroccan meals I have ever had. It was absolutely horrible. The only good thing was the fries. Attempting to get out from the cluster of food stalls was another adventure in and of itself. As the man of the group, all of the "salesmen" were coming up to me and trying to pull me into their stalls. I was literally yelling at them in their own language that I had just eaten and wasn't hungry to no avail!
After our foray into the food stalls we headed into the market. At one of the first stores we passed by a man asked us to come in and look at some purses. One of the girls politely declined and walked on. As I passed, the man yelled several English cuss words and derogatory terms for women at the girls that are too foul to repeat here because both my mother and advisers from UC read this blog. Now, I have taken a decent amount of Arabic but curses are not my forte'. One can't even gain much from watching American movies with Arabic subtitles because every curse word is replaced with one of two Arabic phrases: "Oh the horror" or "Dang." However, modern slang has seen the phrase for "Oh the horror" morphed into the Arabic version of WTF. We have also learned some Darija words (Moroccan Arabic) to say to people who are bothering us. All that being said, I promptly turned to this man and said in quite loud Arabic for all to hear "WTF stinky man! Shame be on you!" Needless to say, the man was speechless and quite stunned. Mission Accomplished. Later in the evening the other guy and myself explored the square to see the storytellers and potion-makers and listen to some of the music which was quite enjoyable (albeit, we are guys, not girls).

The next day we got up to head out to a small village called Seti Fatma where we planned to hike in an area known as the Ourika Valley, famous for its seven waterfalls. We went to the main square to find a taxi and to gawk at the snake charmers and the monkeys. Yes, I saw a man playing a recorder-like instrument to a cobra rising out of a basket.

After our brief time in the square we headed out for our hike. It was about an hour and a half drive with 7 people crammed into an 80s Mercedes: three in the front , including the driver (and its a manual) and four squeezed across the back seat.
It was well worth the ride. The first two waterfalls are relatively accessible from the road by most tourists who travel out here. From there on though things were tough and our group was quite alone as we ascended the valley to see each of the waterfalls (we had a guide as the trail was unmarked).
Areas of the hike were across the edge of cliffs or up fields of scree that made climbing and descending quite difficult. We even got high enough that there was snow on the ground. The landscape was absolutely gorgeous and the whole hike there and back took around 6 hours.
We returned to Marrakech that evening and after some much needed showers we set out to find dinner, having decided not to return to the main square food vendors. We managed to find a very upscale restaurant (around $12 average price) clearly catering to tourists and enjoyed some very delicious Italian food. Afterwards however, we decided to see what was going on at the main square only this time, it was a gaggle of girls and two guys late at night: a recipe for disaster. As we were looking in on a group of Moroccan men listening to an old man playing a Moroccan guitar the man jumped up and grabbed one of the girls in our group (blond-haired, blue-eyed American) and brought her to the center of the circle to join in the music. As I attempted to record the proceedings on my phone I noticed that our group, again mostly girls, had become enclosed; that is, we started on the outside of the circle and we were now on the inside. As I realized this, all of the girls began to be grabbed by the men around them. One of the girls next to me had a man trying to rub up on her so I began nudging into him and eventually just grabbed her and pulled her in front of me. At this point the girls were very uncomfortable and the girl who had gone into the center of the circle decided she had had enough as well. Then all hell broke loose. The scene was this: 2 guys trying to push away and stave off groups of Moroccan men all trying to grab the behinds of 10 girls at one time. It was the perfect storm. After much craziness and groping, the other guy and myself managed to get the girls into a group as we roamed around them telling guys to get away (one of the sayings we learned in Arabic) and staring them down. (For the record, most Moroccan men do not go to the extreme of touching girls but cat-calling is a very common occurrence that all women experience) Regardless, the moral of the story: never travel with a gaggle of girls and only 2 guys.

Regardless, we enjoyed some great hiking and some memorable experiences in what for me, and many others living in Morocco longer than a weekend visit, consider to be the worst city in the country. However, tourists continue to flock to Marrakech to see a so called "Moroccan city" full of snake charmers, street performers, fire-breathers, and all manner of exotic experiences in what is in reality, the least Moroccan city in Morocco.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Desert Desert

The above title may appear to be a mistake but it merely an excuse for a little Arabic lesson. Most people I know, including myself, call this geographic feature of Africa “The Sahara Desert.” However, the word Sahara, is simply a transliteration of the same word in Arabic and it literally means desert. So when people say “I went to the Sahara Desert” they are actually saying “I went to the Desert Desert.” Anyway, linguistics aside, I went to the Sahara last weekend.

It was about a 10 hour drive from Rabat to a town called Merzougha on the edge of the desert. The drive took us through snow, winding mountain roads, landscape similar to Arizona or New Mexico, and finally into sand dunes. We had the pleasure of staying at a super nice hotel on the edge of the desert in bungalow dwellings fully equipped with jet bathtubs and even an outdoor hot tub. The hotel had tennis courts, a pool, a jacuzzi, sauna, spa, massages, restaurant, saloon, and even a dance tent with a DJ. They also had 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, 4x4 jeeps and dune buggies available for offroading through the dunes of the Sahara. As much as I really wanted to hop on a dirt bike or hire a dune buggy for the afternoon, it happens to be against my programs safety policy. Regardless, we were taking camels out into the desert.

We all wrapped our heads and faces in scarves and donned our sunglasses as we headed to where our camels were waiting. I was towards the front of the group. As we approached the camels there was one in particular that was not happy. He was growling and yelling and wouldn’t stay still. In fact, 2 guys were trying to hold him down. Of course, one of them motioned to me and told me to get on the camel. I thought, this is crazy. As a approached this crazy camel he jumped up before I could get on. After much back and forth and yelling on the part of the camel he came back down and I prepared to mount. Literally as soon as my weight touched the saddle the camel jumped right up and kind of pranced around. The guys near me got him (and me) under control, tied us to the camel in front of us, and apologized to me saying “He’s a young camel.” Wonderful.

Throughout the rest of this 2 hour trip into the Sahara , at our campsite, and even the next morning, my camel was growling, yelling and just generally not happy. On top of all of that, camels are not very comfortable animals to ride, particularly for men, as they just sort of plod along. From just the 2 hours into the desert I had bruises on my behind. However, even with my camel issues, the Sahara was a grand adventure. We were literally surrounded by sand dunes. We watched the sun set as sand pelted us from the wind and eventually made it to our campsite just after night fall. We enjoyed a delicious uniquely Moroccan dish of minced meat with egg (Tajine) before embarking on one the most physically demanding endeavors of my life.

Our campsite backed up against what was known as the largest dune in Morocco. Every semester, students are challenged to climb to the top with Fouad, our Moroccan resident director. Last semester, 19 students started and 2 made it to the top. Amazingly, 9 of us started and all 9 of us made it to the top. Climbing a sand dune is one of the most physically tiring things I have ever done. And what’s worse is you feel like you aren’t going anywhere because the sand is constantly moving and swallowing your footsteps. Plus, it was nighttime and this was a steep dune. I was literally reduced to crawling on hands and knees to make it to the crest of the two sides of the dune which took quite awhile.

There were 3 of us that made it to the crest together: Fouad, a guy by the name of Greg, and myself. I thought it would be easier but I was horribly mistaken. We removed our sand-filled shoes at this point and since Fouad had done the climb before he lead the way “breaking the crest” towards the summit while Greg and I followed in his footsteps. The going was very difficult and treacherous as the sand would give way on either side of the crest and the wind and sand was whipping us around the whole time. After only 5 minutes or so Fouad was exhausted so we sat down to take a breather. After a short while, we got up and I took the lead breaking the crest up the dune. I lasted all of 5 minutes as well before I collapsed in exhaustion to take a break. Again, after a short while we got up and Greg took the lead breaking the crest. But, once again, after 5 about minutes we all collapsed in exhaustion. We continued on in this manner for at least a half an hour and it seemed like we were going nowhere. Plus, that tajine wasn’t feeling too great in our stomachs. But, at long last the crest began to flatten out and our goal was in sight.

After, well over an hour and a half of climbing we had reached the summit and immediately proceeded to collapse in exhaustion. The stars were absolutely gorgeous from the top. Once all 9 of us had battled through exhaustion, cramps, and even getting sick to make it to the top, we began our decent. This was very easy and even fun except for the fact that it was literally impossible to see where you were going. Up looked the same as down which looked the same as straight out and left or right. All was black. After making it down the dune we each climbed straight into our tents and went to sleep.

(The Dune we hiked in background: you can see only 1/2 from the bottom)

The next morning we got up to watch the beautiful moment when the sun rises over the Sahara and prepared to ride our camels out of the desert. Once out, we dismounted, rubbed our sore limbs, stuffed our faces with food, and prepared for the long trip home. All in all, it was a great adventure into the great Desert Desert.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I want to see mountains again, mountains!

So one of the optional excursions students here in Rabat could go on, involved visiting a Berber village and hiking in the mountains. I jumped on board right away. It takes about 3 hours by bus to really get into the mountains and yes, there is snow in Morocco. We toured several areas and overlooks in the Mountains themselves, known as the Middle-Atlas Mountains. At one stop, a place called Jbel Hebri, or Mt. Hebri, we had the chance to ride around on a horse, do some sledding, or climb the mountain (6348ft). You can guess what I chose. 1 hour later and on the brink of a heart attack I had made it to the top with a friend. While I will readily admit that I am by no means “in shape”, that was a hard climb. It was extremely steep and covered in snow which made it all the more difficult to climb. Once on the top, we realized that our bus was preparing to leave. We were faced with a dilemma: slowly walk down what took us 1 hour to climb, slide/roll down and be a wet mess for the rest of the day, or run down. We chose to run. Somehow, I managed to make it all the way down the mountain without falling. We had to zig-zag back in forth but we were cruising. Everyone at the bottom of the mountain got a good laugh out of the sight of 2 Americans prancing/running/stumbling down a mountain.

That evening we arrived in the Berber village we were staying the night at. Berber people are not Arabs. They are an older, indigenous population living in the mountains and rural parts of Morocco. And this was definitely a village. 300 people living in fairly rudimentary huts and small buildings on the side of a mountain. In fact, this village was so out there and so Berber that a friend and I could not communicate what so ever with our host family. They didn’t understand formal Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, or Egyptian Arabic. It made me realize how much I actually rely on Arabic around the house with my host sister in Rabat. Our stay there became a massive game of charades. They did have a 8 year old daughter who knew some formal Arabic so she served as our translator for urgent matters. She was particularly interesting because she had never seen a white person and immediately took a liking to me. I tried to give her some gum and she was very confused about the idea of putting it in her mouth but not eating it. Of course, she ended up eating it.

On one of my evenings out in the mountains some of us traveled to one of the bigger towns to look for jalabas (the robes that Muslim men wear; they are very warm), eat some food, and get a shave. I’ve always wanted to get a straight blade razor shave so I thought why not get one in Morocco? The guy who gave me my shave was a friend of one of our resident directors and gave me a great price and a great shave! It was ten times better than any shave I’ve ever given myself!

Finally, on our last day in the mountains we went on an extensive hike. We spent 6 hours hiking and according to our resident director, Fouad, we went 40km, which is a lot. I think we went more like 15 miles. Regardless, it was pretty tough going since we were climbing up mountains essentially. We got some gorgeous views of the surrounding areas and ate lunch on a beautiful sheer cliff. As we worked our way around the mountains Fouad began making a loud kissing noise by essentially kissing his hand loudly. I asked him why he was doing this and he said that he was calling the monkeys. Funny, but I didn’t think much of it and we continued hiking. However, he continued making this noise intermittently for the next five minutes or so until he brought us to a complete stop and started looking around. I asked him what he was doing and he told me “Help me find the monkeys. We are supposed to meet them here.” I thought maybe he was misusing a word in English so I said, “Wait, what do you mean we are supposed to meet the monkeys here?” (side note: as I’m asking him these questions he is crawling around, looking under trees, and searching the branches, presumably for monkeys) He answers me saying, “Didn’t you hear me calling them a couple of minutes ago? I told them to meet us here.” Yea right, okay. You’re pretty funny. How on earth can we “meet” the monkeys at a specific spot? But wouldn’t you know it, he yells out to us and points off into the trees where we see none other than a group of monkeys making their way towards us! I turned to Fouad in utter disbelief and said “No way.” He laughed and promised to do it (talk with the monkeys) on our next hiking trip. It was completely ridiculous.

We spent some time taking pictures of the monkeys and feeding them food from our hands as they were extremely friendly even though we were in the middle of a mountain forest with no one else around. We hiked on a while longer until we arrived at what is known as “the oldest, biggest tree in Morocco.” It was very old and it was very big but it was also very dead. All and all though, it was a great hiking trip and a great cultural experience. I can’t wait to hike Mt. Toubkal, the largest mountain in North Africa (13671ft).