Busy is as Busy Does

I feel like I've been posting about our last trip for weeks because nothing has been going on.  Wait! That's not true, it's because everything has been going on lately!  A short list of goings on are as follows:

1.  I started my new job at the consulate and I am loving it.  Capital L.  It's a bit of library, a bit of public affairs, a bit of social media, a bit of programming, a lot of wonderful people, a bit of French, a bit of Arabic, a bit of.... you get the idea.  I feel really blessed.

2.  A few of my new colleges have been helping me learn a some Arabic and it has been awesome.  I think they get a real kick out of my 'look-what-I-can-do' silliness, but they are gracious when I mispronounce something as simple as good morning and that means the world to me.  

3.  It's Ramadan!  I'll post more about the holy month of fasting later, but it changes the pace of life drastically in this part of the world.  Shops are closed and the streets look like ghost towns until about 10:30 p.m. when things really pick up and go well into the night.  It's been a much different experience than in Jerusalem and we have learned a lot.

4.  I pulled something gnarly in my back whilst working it out to a Denise Austin exercise video.  No matter, I've started a regiment of physical therapy including what feels like a mild form of electro-shock therapy.  Adventures in health care indeed.  

5.  I've started driving.  You heard right, driving!   Remember the left turn I told you about where everyone lines up 10 cars across (instead of behind one another) and then races to funnel into the single lane that T's with intersection?  I have made several such left turns and so far so good.  It occurred to me that going from being and American driver to a Moroccan driver would have been really stressful, but going from being an American walker (without a car) to a Moroccan driver makes total sense.  You just have to behave like you are not driving a several ton machine full of gasoline but a regular person who can squeeze through tight spaces, back up at will, go in the wrong direction, and park on sidewalks (which I've done on several occasions).  

6. My youngest brother moved to Hawaii to play soccer as a college Freshman and I'm so proud I could burst.  Even though I'm thousands of miles away from him I feel like I have personally sent him off to school all by himself and Max has had to talk me down from my worry several times.  In my most extreme moments of anxiety I will cry out  "How do parents do this?!  How can we ever do this?!"  I'm ridiculous.  

7.  I signed up for French class through the Foreign Service Institute, gulp, in the intermediate class.  I may have lost my brain.  We'll see how it goes.

8.  You've been watching the news, right?  Lots of stuff has been going on around these parts and further east.  My heart has been heavy for those who have and are experiencing very hard time these days.

I'll leave you with a few pictures of the last leg of our trip to Marrakesh from the Atlas Mountains.  We took a day trip up and around several windy bends to the Berber town of Imlil.  We ate an amazing Berber tagine in the shadow of the highest mountain in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, and watched the local children play in the rivers that trickle out of the mountains.  The perfect getaway from our getaway.  So postmodern.

Small villages in the Atlas Mountains


Evening Falls

After our mighty lamb lunch we toured the Bahia Palace - an enormous moorish complex with gadzillions of rooms and courtyards and flowers, etc.  It was lovely.  
Bahia Palace Courtyard - one of them
We finished our second day in Marrakesh with a hearty meal of sausages, pastilla, and grilled veggies at several different food carts on Jemaa Al-Fnaa.  I had this idea that we would enter the tangle of carts pushed together to form a kind of outdoor cafeteria and peruse several menus before prudently selecting the best looking dishes with the best prices.  No dice.  We entered through one of the main entrances and were immediately swarmed by pushy men shoving menus in our face.  We got about three carts in before we relented and sat down on the edge of one of the metal tables.  But we were not disappointed.  The square is amazing and Max only almost got in a fight once when a younger menu hawking soup seller grabbed me by the arm.  What can you do?

Snail Soup.  It's actually on our list of things to try, but not in July.  

If you know Max, this picture could be titled "Of Course!"
 We finished the evening with ice cream and flan at the Andalusia Cafe overlooking the square.  I read that it is the largest square in Africa and that doesn't surprise me.

On our way out of the square


Lamb by the Kilo

The next morning we hit the streets early in order to see the historical sites before the sun rose directly above the Medina and, in theory, made the temperatures soar.  But we were extraordinarily lucky this trip because the temperature stayed pretty mild - almost sweater in the evening mild.

Our first stop was the Ben Youssef Medersa.  Like the Medersas, or Islamic colleges, of Fez, the Ben Youssef Medersa was a place where students could live and study - the Koran as well as other subjects.  It operated from the 14th century until 1960 when it was closed down, renovated, and reopened in 1982 as a public historical sight.

Once inside I tucked myself in the corner, shielding my notebook from the glaring sun, and sketched the fountain and Merdersa walls for some time.  Although my drawing skills leave much to be desired, it was a great way to soak in the feeling of the place.
Next we hit the Marrakesh Museum and the Almoravid (12th century) Koubba - el-Ba'adyn.  Koubba is the Arabic word for tomb and I'm not really sure how it fits in here because this Koubba, with its domed room and basin along the floor, was used for ablutions, or ritual washing before prayers.
While the Mechoui we ate the night before was fantastic (despite accidently eating large chunks of preserved lemon by accident not once but twice) we wanted to have a more authentic Marrakshi meal.  When we explained to our Riad hostess that morning that we were looking for real street Mechoui she drew a lot of squiggly lines on our map this way and that before marking a giant X on a small side street of Jemaa Al-Fnaa.  I snapped a series of pictures so you could encounter the street just as we did.
 They refer to this dish as Mechoui.  In Morocco it is a whole lamb (like the whole thing) roasted over a spit.  In this little ally a man known as "The Hajj" hacks the lamb up with an axe and sells it by kilo. So we bellied up, ordered our kilo, and were handed almost 2 pounds of what we think was part of a leg in   thin sheets of paper.  We picked through the mechoui with our hands in a small white tiled hole in the wall (literally) off the street, about 10 feet squared.  The couple sitting behind us, and I really mean behind us - the place was so small our bums met off the back of our chairs - picked the thing clean while we left the bits we couldn't discern or  break apart after a few bites.

It was delicious.    

We finished our meal just after prayers and as we left the ally we noticed large groups of men performing one of the 5 daily Islamic prayers.  I had never seen devotion like this in public and it was really something to behold.  They all kneel on prayer rugs facing Mecca and perform certain physical movements associated with the prayer as well as Koranic recitations.  Beautiful.


Animal Carpet Wall to Wall

After winding through the congested streets of Casablanca, no small feat, Max and I finally found ourselves outside the city limits and on our way to Marrakesh.  In what may have been slightly on the cheesy side, I put in the CD I'd burned for the occasion that began with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Marrakesh Express".  It quickly became the theme song of our weekend away and, cheesy or not, I do not regret it. 

Animal carpet wall to wall
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
American Women 5 foot tall (...?)

Wouldn't you know we're ridin' on the Marrakesh Express. 

So many scooters!

After a long and sweaty ordeal trying to get our parking situation figured out we hopped a cab from the new city to Bab Doukkala found along the north side of the Medina walls.  Like most places in Morocco there is an old city or Medina and a newer French city built during the French occupation  between the early 1900's and the 1950's.  While the new city is easier to maneuver and if you are carrying a lot of luggage much easier to traverse, we are light packers and much prefer the medina when we travel - what's a few extra gallons of sweat?

We arrived at our riad, Riad ZamZam, at about 5 o'clock in the evening and found it a very welcome respite from the heat and the commotion of the outside streets.  In honor of our anniversary we splurged a bit on the Riad and we were not disapointed.  in fact, we were the only ones there the whole weekend and we felt like Kings.  But not in a sterilized-white-tiled-bathroom-with-shiny-fixtures kind of way, but a funky-cave-like-shower-molded-to-the-wall-and-tiny-rustic-chairs-made-of-zebra-skin kind of way.  The small court yard had a freezing plunge pool that delighted Max to no end and an ancient date tree that rose above the roof and swayed back and forth.

Despite its lovely atmosphere, we fought the urge to spend all of our time at the Riad.  That first night we made our way across the medina to a restaurant a friend had recommended.  While we were told about the amazing pastilla (chicken pie with almonds and cinnamon and sugar) and slow cooked lamb with preserved lemons we were not warned about the fire dancing woman.  Belly dancing is a big touristy thing in Morocco.  Many upscale restaurants aimed at tourists (guilty) have belly dancing late into the night.  It's not something that either of us really knows how to handle.  Should we appreciate and applaud it on the merits of its skill?  Should we avert our eyes because of its scandalous-ness?  Or should we feel ooky that women are dancing in front of us, scantily clad, for money?  We usually feel the latter. 

Anyway, there was one dancer in particular (very modestly dressed) that danced with a plate of candles on her head.  At one point she leaned over the table, hips still swinging, and offered her hands to me in a gesture to join her.  If you know me, I'm not a dancer.  To the extent that in Highschool I hid out in the hallway during dances.  It's true.  But one of my favorite things about travel is that you are so free to redefine yourself.   Sure I'm afraid of dancing when I'm myself at home, but why shouldn't traveling Brooke be more fun, more adventurous?  My awkward wiggling was only compounded when the woman put the plate of candles on my head.  I held it firmly in place, but still felt a bit of terror at the prospects of lighting myself on fire.  Of course I dutifully tipped her and, tourist trap or no, it was a pretty awesome experience. ( I would have put the picture of me with the candle plate, but I definitely looked like a googly eyed crazy person trying to move to the beat while not start myself on fire - it isn't pretty)

We passed through the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa, on the way home and though we didn't spend a lot of time there that night because of the hour, we were there long enough for me to get chased by a man holding a snake and buy some fresh squeezed orange juice.                


Weekly Roundup: Oh the Places You've Been

We didn't have a very big turnout for this week's round up so I gave it an extra day....alas, to no avail.  So consider this a little nudge to all you bloggers who read but haven't quite mustered the courage to contribute.  We all want to hear what you have to say :)  Make sure to check the calender next week and send Enclos*ure your submissions  - for yourself or posts you've found during the week.  ...Not that I didn't feel like a giant hypocrite writing that - I did.  I too will be a better contributor.  The more the merrier.     

But anyway, this week's roundup is about 'place related joys'  - where do you love?  In a sense being in the Foreign Service means you get to collect favorite places.  Whether it's a coastal retreat in Cameroon, the waterfalls of Iquazu or the snow cone shack in your home town - there is something grounding and sustaining about falling in love with a place and returning to it.  

I settled on this topic after listening to a fabulous piece on NPR on two travel writers, Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux called "Five Tips for Making Travel Meaningful".  Everyone travels differently and what makes a trip -or a post in our case- for one person might sound like torture to another.  But the bottom line is, we are all seeking for ways to make our travels and current post meaningful on a personal level.  We want to do good, sustaining work in our jobs, but we also want to have some personal connection with locals, with geography, with history, and with culture.

As a follow up to this week's round up - feel free to comment on how you have managed to make those relationships and connections - with people, with culture, with history, and with geography.  "Favorite Places" seemed like an easy way to capture some of that idea this week.

Favorite Places Overseas

Catembe, Maputo
3rd Culture Children starts us off with a wonderful post about her time in Southern Africa.  She so perfectly describes a combination of amazing travel opportunities in conjunction with trying personal times.  Difficult posts and changing personal circumstances can really mark a place in our hearts. 

On that note I'll add one of my favorite places to the list.  (I have many - I'm becoming almost indiscriminate about falling in love with a place...get a hold of yourself Brooke!)  Before joining the foreign service my husband and I spent a year as students in Jerusalem. Whenever someone asks me what it was like I pause, not because we didn't have a terrific experience in Jerusalem, but because it's not really the type of place you say "It was so fun.  I, like, did all these things and had a blast".  We were able to travel freely throughout Israel and the West Bank and it was an experience I'll never forget.  We saw things that were difficult for both groups of people, but on the other hand, we made friends with people from both groups and saw their joys and their triumphs up close.  The struggle is almost palpable in Jerusalem.  But we were also able to spend time outside of Jerusalem in the many beautiful natural sights that the region has to offer - wadis and oasis', lakes, the dessert, green hiking trails, snorkeling, stunning shorelines. We made great friends that we'll have for a lifetime.   Like 3rd Culture Children it was our first big experience overseas as a family.  For those reasons I think Jerusalem will always be one of my favorite places.
Achziv National Park - that's Lebanon you can see in the background.
Below: Video of a candy shop in Hebron - an illustration of the region's many contrasts

So, when you are in these foreign favorite places - how do you communicate?  Ogles and Observations has some great language learning tips that can help us making connections wherever we are. 

Favorite Places at Home
Small Bits
posts about a favorite place near to her home that has been on my list for sometimes.  Being away from our homes for so long can sometimes give us new eyes to appreciate it.
Mesa Verde

Hello Taylalay shared one of her favorite places with us this week: Maine.  Be sure to check out the great photos - it's like I could taste the lobster roll!

Shores of Maine

A place that we will all call "home" at one point or another is DC.  Paul Benjamin: Writer, Editor, Supermodel  spent some time there before heading to his new assignment and he posts about some of the great things DC has to offer.

Washington Monument

And to end on a sweet note Wife Mommy Woman really gets at the heart of what "home" means and her favorite place related joys. 


Weekly State Department Round Up: Oh The Places You've Been

This week's theme:

"Favorite Places"

Places you have discovered on your travels that you have loved or that have kept you sane in some way or another.  At home or abroad - what have been some of your place related joys?

Feel free to email me or leave a comment below before Friday :) 

Six Years, In the Desert

Initially that title read "Six Years in the Desert" - but that would be an enormous misnomer.  It's really been a lovely oasis.  What am I talking about?  Six terrific years of marriage - each more exciting and less forseen than the last :)

We decided, months and months ago actually, to spend our anniversary in Marrakesh - a lovely city perched at the base of the Atlas mountains. (And across a desertish landscape from Casa.  Hence the title.)  It has a long history in the region as one of the former imperial cities and a crossroads for the Berbers of the Atlas mountains and the Arabs of the plains and ruling cities found in the west.  It is sometimes referred to as the "Red City" - the walls of the medina, made from the local iron rich soil, form a lovely maze of salmon colored walls.

Despite offering all of the delights of modern hedonism - gambling, alcohol, belly dancing, luxury hotels and thrumping night clubs, Marrakesh has a lot to offer if those things aren't really your things (as they are not ours). Marrakesh is home to the largest square in all of Africa and what many argue is the most perfectly proportioned, most exquisite mineret in North Africa found at the Kutubia Mosque.

I was nervous that I would find Marrakesh over commercialized and cynical in its approach to local culture and tourism but I found just the opposite to be the case.  We went in the dead of summer which usually spells disaster.  Temperatures over 100 degrees are very common through the summer months.  However, in what can only be called an anniversary miracle, the temperature lingered around 80 degrees for most of our time in Marrakesh.  But anyway, the summer is the low season for this reason, and there weren't a lot of other tourists.  But the main square was still PACKED.  As I looked around I realized it wasn't misplaced tourists with sunburned noses like myself surrounding the snake charmers and henna tattooers in the square - it was local teenagers out with their friends and young families with children in strollers.  Perhaps that's what keeps Jamaa El-Fnaa so vibrant.  It's not just a space for local entertainers to free tourists of their change, but a square to meet and mingle for locals as well.  It is a terrific public space.  But more on that later.   For now, a few pictures of the highlights with details to follow.       
Ben Yousseff Medersa
Food Stalls at Jamaa el-Fnaa
Friendly Gembri Player
Best. Grapefruit. Juice. Ever.
Small Atlas Mountain Berber village
Berber Tagine.  Holy Smokes. 
Toubkal - the highest mountain in North Africa
Berber village above an empty waadi (river bed)