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Tales From the Tour -- December 2003
"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my
experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.
Monday, December 08, 2003
It would be hard to imagine more welcoming hosts than Barbara and Richard, who own a three-story Victorian house in Whalley Range, a couple of miles south of Manchester. The sitting room usually had a fire going and smelled of fires of yore; assorted antique odds and ends dotted the house, such as photographs of early-1900s gymnastics teams and 18th-century leather-bound books where the s
's looked like f
's; on every step of the grand staircase was perched a stuffed animal. There were two pianos, high ceilings, and a garden out back. Water was always boiling for tea and Erica and I were always welcome to chew the fat with Barbara and Richard and guests of the other two rooms. The room Erica and I stayed in, which cost us £75 per week, was somewhat plainer in decoration, but it had its own fireplace and an extremely comfortable bed. And before retiring, Barbara and Richard would sing to each other, "Good night, good night, I'll see you in the morning."
Transportation into Manchester, and more so home from Manchester, was a bit of a nuisance. On the map, Chorlton Road heads due south from Deansgate, a major street in the city and quite near our theatre, the Opera House, and so it might have been reasonable to expect a bus to follow that road. But all the buses from Whalley Range wound their way around a most exhausting route, zigzagging by the giant Asda supermarket and through the University of Manchester, and not really approaching anywhere near the Opera House. By the time you waited for a bus and forked over £1.25 it was just as fast (and considerably less of a drain on the wallet) to simply walk the two miles into town. Coming back late at night necessitated a £6 cab ride - I walked it once in the dark but it was incredibly dreary - and considering our room rate the transportation cost wasn't too taxing.
Sprawling and sloppy, Manchester claims to be the world's first industrial city, and its three principal museums combine to tell the story. The mother of them all is the Museum of Science and Industry, housed in five buildings, one of which is the world's oldest passenger train station - it was in use from 1830 to 1844 on the Liverpool-Manchester line. Cotton, brought from the United States, was shipped to Liverpool and then brought to the textile sweatshops in and around Manchester, where various machines sorted, strengthened, and twisted it. They demonstrate many of the machines at the museum, and boy, do they make a racket - going deaf was just one of the myriad hazards of working in the factories, which began around 1830 and flourished between 1880 and 1950. I particularly liked one notice posted inside the production rooms of the Platt Brothers & Co. Limited in 1899, with regard to workers' compensation: "Notice is hereby given that in all cases where an accident may occur to any person in the employ of this company by reason of his leaving his proper work and being in any place or intermeddling with any work machine or thing other than that or those in about or for which he is then employed by the company such person will be debarred from obtaining compensation under the above act."
Then there was an extensive exhibit of the development of steam, gas, and diesel engines - something had to drive all that textile machinery - and a great interactive exhibit showing the history of electricity in Manchester. You were given a shopping list of three household appliances, and you had to browse catalogs from around 1950 and purchase all of the items within your estimated budget. The exhibit also explained the science behind electricity, complete with generators, but no matter how many electricity exhibits I go to I will never hope to understand how generators work or why deceptive current is better than altruistic current, or whatever DC and AC stand for.
There was also a demonstration of the "Baby," the first true computer - that is, the first one that could run a stored program - built in 1948, when someone had the brilliant idea of repeatedly shooting binary data through a cathode-ray tube. Comprising seven bookshelf-sized units and hundreds of knobs and wires, it wouldn't even have fit inside my first Manhattan apartment - but at least the foundation was there for modern computers. You can see an explanation of the Baby, and even try it out for yourself, at www.computer50.org
And I haven't even told you about the aviation building, the exhibit on Manchester's sewers, or the random collection of old machines housed in the basement of the main building - but I think you get the idea.
The People's History Museum told a different aspect of the industry story, with exhibits on unionization, strikes, city life, and political revolts. And the sparkling-new Urbis, a museum of cities themselves, compared life in Manchester, Sao Paulo, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Singapore, exploring how those cities have dealt with overpopulation, transportation, and technological innovation. It touched on Mumbai and Lagos but not as much as I'd hoped - Lagos is growing by more than 300,000 people a year, and there must be a reason!
The problem I had with Manchester is that it was simply a big city, and in two weeks I couldn't get under its skin and discover its true personality. As I learned at the Urbis, there used to be Italian, Jewish, and Irish neighborhoods, but they have all assimilated. Much of the city center has been rebuilt following the decline of the textile industry in the mid-1900s, and more recently following a bomb in 1996. Walk up and down the main streets, especially in the pedestrianized zones, and you see exactly the same stores that are found in every British city. There weren't any pubs with the coziness or history of Liverpool's Philharmonic or Oxford's Eagle and Child (though the Mark Addy pub doled out a fabulous cheese-and-pate sampler). There was, at least, a Chinatown, dating from the 1970s - Britain's biggest, though only a few square blocks. At least there was some decent Chinese food.
Town Hall, a stately building from 1894, sat in Albert Square, but at the time we were there it was topped by the most hideous blow-up doll I'd ever seen. I believe it was supposed to be Santa, but it could just as easily have been the Pillsbury Dough Boy. It's hard to imagine what hallucinatory concoction some city official must have had to imbibe to think, "OK, let's take our most elegant building, the one people consider the symbol and focal point of our city, and mock it with the most grotesque, anachronistic, out-of-place creature anyone has ever seen." You could, however, go inside Town Hall and see the paintings from the city's history: "John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle, A.D. 1753," "The Opening of the Bridgewater Canal, A.D. 1761," and "Dalton Collecting Marsh Fire Gas," to name just a few.
The annual Christmas markets graced the city during our stay. I'm normally something of a curmudgeon when it comes to Christmas - or any holiday for that matter, or any subject for that matter - but I couldn't get enough of these markets. If I've ever been filled with general holiday spirit, it was at the sight of people - local people, not tourists, for few tourists come to Manchester - milling about, examining little trinkets, sampling locally made cheeses and chutneys, and spending their evenings eating sausages cooked under a big tent and drinking mulled wine. There were three separate markets. The European market occupied the space in front of Town Hall. I, of course, focused on the food: goulash from Luxembourg, filled pancakes from Holland, tapas from Spain. The German market, in St. Ann's Square, by the church of the same name, had appropriate delicacies and people in frilly costumes selling candy. The small English market, in the St. Ann's courtyard, was basically just a couple of food stalls with meats and cheeses.
Near Chinatown was a branch of the Grosvenor Casino, and I spent a few short sessions there when there was nothing else to do between when the museums closed and when I had to be at the theatre for our evening performances. It differed from American casinos in a few respects. First, I had to complete an application and wait 24 hours before being allowed in, and I had to show my membership card each time I entered. Second, blackjack was dealt slightly differently: The dealer doesn't take a second card until everyone else has played. This means that if you've octupled your bet through a series of splits and double-downs, and ended up with 21 on all your hands, you can still lose the lot if the dealer pulls blackjack. Third, things just seemed more lax. Players were allowed to make side bets on other players' hands, and a purchase of £100 in chips or a dropped card didn't require consultation with the pit boss. The other players were overwhelmingly Asian and were collectively the unfriendliest lot and stupidest players I'd ever seen. I'd never witnessed such a fear of busting. If they all had 15 and the dealer showed a 10, not one of them would take a card - mathematically you're supposed to in that situation. Then they'd berate me if I took a card and busted. Yet it was I who ended the fortnight ahead £63.
I took a day trip to Leeds, an hour's train ride away, to see a touring production of Blood Brothers
. I'd forgotten that the musical is at once the corniest and creepiest show around. If you let yourself be taken in by all that (and the 17 incarnations of the opening number), you'll love it. If you don't, you'll probably hate it. But I still love it, even if the entire audience was clearly on a field trip from a coughing asylum.
I liked Leeds, too. Its reputation is as a dirty, dreary place, but it has a fabulous covered market and the wonderful Armouries Museum. I could have wandered the market for hours. I won't bore you with tales of cheeses, fruit, and steak-and-kidney pie; I'll just head for the most interesting stall, the Weighouse, which I'd loosely describe as "everything dry that can be packaged in bins and sold by the kilo." There were several kinds of sugars, and various spices, and lots of candy - but it wasn't just the predictable. Here were brand-name cereals ready to be scooped into a bag, as well as non-food items such as laundry detergent. Another stall in the market specialized in shoe repair and key cutting. Fascinating.
And when I stepped into the Royal Armouries Museum, I was once again amazed by the scope and pleasing layout of British museums. I don't have a huge amount of patience for mundane collections of guns, but this place was exceptional. There were five sections, each devoted to a different aspect of guns and swords: hunting, civil self-defense, tournaments, Asian decorative and practical weaponry, and, of course, war. Intriguing displays explained why you'd use this weapon or that one to kill a rhino or a wild boar or a Frenchman or a rapist, and there were daily recreations of jousting and the like. You could even try your hand at target practice.
Good meals were to be had in Manchester. We made repeated trips to Wagamama, a UK-based noodle chain, and, of course, to Rusholme, a couple of miles southeast of the city center, which has store after store of Indian restaurants, sweet shops, and clothing stores. There's almost enough neon in this "curry mile" to make it look like Las Vegas, and the spices wafting through the air are hypnotic. Closer to the theatre were good Turkish and Armenian restaurants. We've had our fill of those; never did I think I'd see the day when another orchestra member said he was tiring of Turkish food, but it happened - and Stephen likened the cuisine at these establishments to the Greek and Persian restaurants we've been frequenting, aptly calling it the same food with different spellings. There was also a recently opened Spanish restaurant with awkward service (our orders were taken by several people on separate occasions and food was brought out at wildly staggered intervals). And there was a slightly overpriced-looking African restaurant (it did not specify which of the 50-odd African countries' cuisines it claimed to represent) called Jowata, which as far as we could tell was never open, though it did seem to have at least one female employee, who screamed at me and called me an asshole for giving my customary bang on the storefront glass when we arrived two hours before the posted closing time and found the place long since shut. Well, don't lie, then.
I went through a twelve-hour fever of sorts on one of our two-show days (I would never admit to being sick
), and my piano solo faltered a bit as a result. The equilibrium between my brain and my hands wasn't quite there, and I started speeding up during a tricky passage - and then I couldn't slow down without sort of stuttering for a couple of bars. But our performances have been well-received, thanks largely to Ruthie Henshall, who starred in the show our second week in Manchester and is continuing on through Edinburgh. I saw her in She Loves Me
in London in 1995 and have always had the greatest respect for her. In Fosse
, she's the only person who's sung "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" with enough passion to make me sit up and take notice. It's fair to say I've reached a certain kind of physical nirvana with this show, in that my hands can pretty much play it with only a nominal amount of brain energy; my thoughts frequently drift off to other subjects - where I'm going to have dinner, what museums I'm going to visit tomorrow - and all of a sudden I'll look down at the music and realize we're in the fourth song of the second act and I haven't remembered playing the two preceding numbers. But when Ruthie sings, I'm all ears.
Manchester had typically British gloomy weather, but at least it wasn't too cold. For Edinburgh, our Scottish host told us, we'd need to bundle up.
Saturday, December 13, 2003
The trip to Edinburgh lasted five hours, taking us by all those broad valleys and rolling hills and plenty of sheep, spray-painted in different colors to show ownership. We arrived in Edinburgh a little after 15:00, which meant just before dark, owing to the city's latitude. And though it was cold, for most of the fortnight we spent in Edinburgh we were blissfully spared the rain.
Erica and I stayed with a woman named Dorothy, expressly because, according to our digs list, she lived a reasonable walk from the theatre and had a dog. The Jack Russell terrier, Mattie, was 14 and nearly blind, but still frisky - when she'd run across Dorothy's basement apartment it sounded like gently pelting rain. Mattie largely ignored us for the first week, but then she grew fond of us and even occasionally climbed into our bed.
Edinburgh was beguiling and majestic. By day the Old Town's ancient buildings and narrow alleys are great for exploring; by night, looking south from the New Town (not that new - it dates from 1767, when they got the idea of building a bridge across the Nor' Loch so as to allow the city to expand) you see the German Christmas market and brightly lit kiddie rides in Princes Street Gardens, hear the rumble of trains leaving and entering the adjacent Waverley Station, and sense the bustle of everyone shuffling home from work - all this against the brilliant backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.
I'll jump right in and tell you about the museums, which, as usual, were fantastic. You could spend weeks in the Museum of Scotland and the adjacent Royal Museum if you read everything. I spent two hours just on the lower floor of the Museum of Scotland, viewing an extensive fossil collection, learning how the early settlers made butter and cheese and processed grain, examining the residual waste formed when wooden pottery was created using a lathe, finding out what early inhabitants made of all of Scotland's various types of stone, learning about the brief series of Roman occupations in the first centuries A.D. and the Vikings' arrival at the end of the first millennium, and reading inscriptions in Viking runes and the Celtic ogham alphabet. And after those two hours I was only at about the year 1100, and there were six floors still above me. Needless to say, I had to make another trip in order to learn about the events surrounding the union with England in 1603, the assimilation of Scotland's parliament in 1707, and the intervening and following years of religious and political turmoil. Then there was the extensive exhibit on science and industry, though I rather glossed over that as it was much like Manchester's, except that in Scotland the emphasis was on coal mining rather than textiles. Frequently the displays had adjoining interactive exhibits to give you more of an idea how various items were used: how calculations were simplified using rods known as Napier's bones, how and why the Tay Bridge sank in 1879, and why the ancient "Maiden" (a kind of guillotine) was preferable to the previous custom of hacking someone's head off with 20 or 30 strikes of a blunt axe.
I also popped in to the Royal Museum to see what may be the oldest surviving steam locomotive, dating from around 1815, and to see a performance of the Millennium Clock. It was a rather morbid spectacle - amidst all the gears and bells is a penetrating death theme, complete with figures of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin and a pieta
statue on top, and Bach organ music is played as the clock strikes the hour.
And then there was the Museum of Edinburgh and the nearby People's Story, which give a sense of the local scene throughout the city's history: how the Old Town was built up with 12-story tenements from which, pursuant to a single-sentence 300-word edict, residents would empty their trash and bedpans into the streets, calling "Gardyloo!" (from the French for "Look out for the water!"). The tenements were originally wooden, which provoked massive fires, and eventually the unsafe buildings - which would sway in the wind and lean in against each other - were torn down after an 1867 act. But the narrow "closes," or alleyways between the buildings, still remain, often in the form of eerie, dimly lit stairways. (As we learned on a ghost tour, there are actually ancient streets below the current closes. They're now only shown as part of the tour, but for a while the homeless would create societies in there, not unlike the "mole people" who live under New York City's subways.) One pub, partway up Fleshmarket Close (so named because it was the site of the old butcher's) and aptly named the Halfway House, served up some great haggis, Scotland's national dish - it consists, more or less, of the ground-up parts of an animal that are left over when you think you've consumed all the edible parts.
The Royal Mile, the Old Town's main street, runs downhill from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the city's primary attractions and the ones where you spend all the money you saved on the free museums. The castle, whose oldest surviving building dates from the 12th century, provided suitable defence for the city, though it was refortified several times. Now several of the buildings provide an extensive, if perhaps tiring, explanation of the history of various regiments that upheld the country's honor, and there's a fascinating exhibit on the "honours" - the coronation crown, scepter, and sword - and the instances in which they were hidden for protection.
The palace, still in use, contains a predictably opulent assortment of tapestries, paintings, and old furniture, but the adjacent ruins of Holyrood Abbey, mostly destroyed after attacks and uprisings from the 16th to the 18th centuries, are perhaps more impressive. Across the street from the palace is the site for Scotland's new parliament building, still under construction. With its sleek, eyelid-shaped buildings, it may well be completely at odds with its surroundings.
From the palace I walked up to Arthur's Seat, a commonly ascended mountain affording superb views of the city and the surrounding farmland - well, let's make that urban sprawl. I got almost up to the top of the next mountain over, after ascending a muddy, open stairway built into the hill, but the track was so narrow and muddy, and the wind so strong - even the crows couldn't fly straight - I came close to slipping, so I eschewed the last few steps and sat down to enjoy the sunset view. (With Scotland's limited daylight hours in winter, it seems that if it's not nighttime it's necessarily either just after dawn or just before sunset.)
The other place of note on the Royal Mile was the High Kirk of St. Giles. There's been a church there for 900 years, and it's interesting to see how the place has been restored and added to over the years, from the ancient pillars in the nave all the way up to the brand-new organ, installed just a few years ago. And then there are testaments to historical events, such as the tablet that says, "Thank God for James Young Simpson's discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847."
Erica took me on a day trip to Glasgow, where she spent a year at the Glasgow School of Art - and showed me around the school, perhaps best known for the architect of its main building, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who created an appealing functionalism that gives the building unity all the way down to its smallest elements, such as the factory-like stairwells, with their mosaic-like colored tiles, and the brass numbers on the doors. On another day trip, a bunch of us went to Stirling, famous for its castle and for William Wallace's defeat of the English in 1297, which paved the way for Robert the Bruce to become Scotland's first king.
We were supposed to follow our Edinburgh stint with three weeks in Frankfurt, before moving on to Paris on 4 January, but the Frankfurt engagement was canceled due to lack of funding. Most people were excited to have the chance to go home for three weeks at the end of the year; I see it as an opportunity to travel. After much deliberation, I settled on Morocco and Spain. When I'd bought my UK mobile phone at the Virgin Megastore in Oxford, they'd had an offer where if you spent £50 in the store you'd get a free flight from London to any of various places in Europe, and Málaga, in southern Spain, was one of them. I didn't really expect the free-flight offer to work out, and it didn't - they said I didn't get my voucher in on time - but some Internet research got me a £54 seat on a charter flight from Glasgow to Málaga, departing tomorrow morning at 8:15. The trick is getting to Glasgow that early in the morning - it's only an hour by bus from Edinburgh, but the only bus that will get me there in time leaves at 3:00 in the morning, and then I have to take a local bus in Glasgow to get me near the airport. Once in Málaga, I can take a bus to Algeciras and then a ferry across to Morocco.
Several hours after I booked the flight from Glasgow to Málaga, Erica noticed an ad on a bus for Air Scotland, and I learned I could have left from Edinburgh, not Glasgow, at a humane hour and done the trip to Málaga for only £36. But I consoled myself, eventually, reasoning that since my flight from Glasgow gets in to Málaga two hours earlier I have a chance at arriving in Tangier before nightfall, and thus I may have some time to explore the city and find a hotel while I can still see.
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND / MALAGA, SPAIN / ALGECIRAS, SPAIN / TANGIER, MOROCCO / RABAT, MOROCCO / CASABLANCA, MOROCCO / MARRAKECH, MOROCCO / MERZOUGA, MOROCCO
And so began the seven-part journey from Edinburgh to Tangier. The 3:00 a.m. bus was mostly full with chattering partygoers heading home to Glasgow. I slept most of the ride, awakening at 4:00 to find Glasgow teeming with people on the main pedestrian way, Sauchiehall Street. There I spent a productive hour calling my parents, taking in the scene, and witnessing what must be a quintessentially Glaswegian custom of throwing a styrofoam platter of chips against the roof of a bus shelter to add to the accumulating litter on the ground.
The 5:22 number 9 bus to Paisley was jam-packed with people, so much so that we spent about ten minutes at one stop while dozens of drunks boarded and fumbled for money to pay the fare. I had already staked out a window seat and was surrounded, interestingly, by emotionally fueled people communicating only in sign language. One of them used her finger to write, in the condensation on the window: "Paul is a 1st class asshole." I was next to Paul.
Even if I was surrounded by non-talkers, the decibel level on the bus was high. One person called out from the back, "How many people here have taken drugs tonight?" Paul erased the message on the window and the girl wrote, "Prick."
Paisley was as close to Glasgow International Airport as the First Glasgow bus company could get me at that hour. I left the bus and completed a reasonably straightforward two-mile walk north to the airport, where I picked up my ticket for the Glasgow-to-Malaga flight on the obscure-sounding carrier Air 2000. Obscure it may have been, but the flight was comfortable; it left ten minutes early, and I slept almost the entire three hours, semi-waking to ingest a suspicious-smelling egg-and-ham breakfast. The flight was nowhere near full and consisted mostly of people in their later years, who I assume were on a package tour of some sort.
I took the 11-minute train ride into Malaga, bought a €9.33 ticket for the 13:45 bus to the southern port of Algeciras, almost two hours away, and had enough time to enter a Wal-Mart-sized supermarket and procure some pate and bread and an orange for the journey. I'd forgotten how seriously the Spanish take their ham. There was an entire aisle devoted to it, and they loomed large, hanging whole from high racks. I slept most of the ride to Algeciras.
Timing was good: The next ferry for Tangier left at 16:00. The ticket cost €23.50. The ferry was comfortable and had more amenities than I'd expected: a duty-free shop, a pub, a snack bar, slot machines, a mosque, and several lounge areas. I spent a good bit of time on the upper deck, taking in the sunshine - it was around 70 degrees - before claiming an oversized chair and sleeping the rest of the way.
Most Moroccan cities of any size have several components. First, there's the medina
, or walled old city, with stately gates, thriving markets, and narrow lanes, which formerly assisted in thwarting attacks by enemies and now assist in keeping the streets cool in the summer. Adjacent to the medina, or perhaps part of it, is the kasbah
, a fortified area originally used for military purposes, but now assimilated into the city. Then there's the French-built ville nouvelle
, the newer part of the city, with larger buildings and roads suitable for cars. Both Arabic and French are spoken (as well as Spanish in the north). I speak neither, though I've started to whip out the teach-yourself-French book I bought a few months ago in preparation for our Paris stint. I can get by on a few sentences in French. When I don't know a word in French, which is still most of the time, I use the Spanish equivalent but with a French pronunciation. It works more often than you'd think.
Tangier was a good introduction to Morocco, because its medina is big enough to be exciting but not so huge that you lose your way easily. All newcomers to Tangier have to deal with aggressive touts who assume that they need to be escorted around and that all they want to do is buy carpets. My tout was Abdul. As I didn't quite succeed in arriving in Tangier before dark - the sun set just as we arrived - I didn't try too vigorously to shrug him off.
Abdul showed me to the overpriced Olid Hotel, where I got a small but reasonably clean room for 80 dirhams (about $9) - no doubt he got a commission of some sort, but because of the hour I didn't feel like investigating other accommodation possibilities. The hotel did have attractive tilework, and my room even had its own toilet and a decent view. Abdul then showed me the main streets of the medina, making an obligatory stop at a carpet shop. The storekeeper welcomed us with mint tea and launched into a hard sell, showing me a dozen or so carpets and asking me to name my price. The thing was, the carpets were
beautiful. I could see myself buying one eventually. But not during my first hour in Morocco.
Abdul then suggested two places to eat, one completely empty, one nearly so - both no doubt with good traditional set menus, but I wanted to pick my own dinner. So he took me back to the hotel, where he demanded Dh200 (about $22) for his services.
I'd expected to tip him for guiding me around for an hour, but I was shocked at his demand. I was prepared to offer Dh20, no more. "What is this?" he asked, insulted. He said he normally gets Dh200 as a guide, and some people like him so much they give Dh500. I said all I'd wanted to do was find a hotel, wash up, and have dinner, and I never asked him for anything beyond that - or anything at all, really. We had reached an impasse. He started to get aggressive: "Are you asking for trouble?"
"Do you want me to get the tourist police?" According to my guidebook they can be effective.
Abdul muttered something to the hotelier, no doubt the Arabic equivalent of "Can you believe this schmuck?"
He lowered his price to Dh150, then Dh100, and then Dh50, but I stayed firm, holding out the Dh20 note, inviting him to take it or leave it. Eventually he grabbed it, waved me upstairs, and stormed off.
Incidentally, the dirham is the most convenient unit of currency I've ever encountered. There are currently about nine of them to the dollar. The smallest coin in regular use is the half dirham, equal to about 5.5 cents - a very practical smallest unit to deal with. You don't have to deal with decimal points or carry around useless pennies, like you do in the United States, and you don't get flustered with masses of zeroes, like you do in Romania and Turkey. Every calculation is instantly manageable.
Now vaguely familiar with the main streets of the medina, I headed out in search of dinner. I also realized I needed to buy soap and toilet paper, since the hotel supplied none. I found some a couple of blocks away, and I started back down the narrow lane. Immediately thereafter the power went out in the medina.
This was a tad creepy, mainly because I wasn't sure who else was in the alley with me, and also because I knew there was at least one man in Tangier who wasn't altogether fond of me. But gradually I grew accustomed to the pitch darkness, and, remembering I was a few steps away from the small Restaurant Andalus, I thought, well, I might as well dine here.
It turned into a most romantic experience. The restaurant - a true hole in the wall - obtained candles and stuffed them into soda bottles. They served up a huge, delicious swordfish steak, with chips, rice, and salad. By the time I finished, the lights had come back on, and, after exploring some sweet markets and buying some walnut-stuffed dates, I stumbled upon the Salon de Thé Excelsior, a light, airy place, where I sat with my mint tea - a giant glass of sugary tea stuffed with large sprigs of mint leaves - and watched the street life.
In the morning I checked out of the Olid and walked a few doors down to the Pension Victoria, where the room was only Dh40, albeit with a shared bathroom, but at least it was a place of my own choosing. It was clean and friendly, though on one occasion two girls exited the place and gave me a curious look that suggested they might be interested in earning a few dirhams in exchange for acts of which Erica would not approve.
Tangier's kasbah is supposed to have an interesting museum, but it was closed that morning. A man told me it would be open at 15:00, but when I went back I learned that it had in fact been closed for restoration for about two years and no one had any idea when it might open again. I did visit two interesting museums in the medina, though. The Musée de la Foundation Lorin contained a collection of old photographs of the city, and the Old American Legation Museum contained a bunch of antique maps and memorabilia from the old U.S. diplomatic mission to Morocco. One map, dating probably from the 1700s and called "The Turkish Empire in Europe, Asia and Africa," had a bunch of those wonderful annotations unique to old maps. Of Algeria, it said, "This Country is Famous for Lyons, Ostriches, Porcupines, Wild Boars, Camelions, Leopards, Apes &c. and furnishes Caves for a vast number of Wild Beasts and is inhabited by People that wander up and down with their Tents." Of the Arabian desert: "Those that travel these Deserts must carry Provisions with them and direct their Course by the Stars, A Country that has neither Men, Beasts, Birds, Trees, Grass nor Pasture, and nothing but sands and rocky mountains."
The best item, however, was a letter sent from U.S. consul Thomas Carr to the Department of State in 1839, in which he explained an unusual circumstance. Moroccan chiefs, at the request of the sultan, had delivered two lions to Carr for the American people. Though it was against policy to accept animals as gifts, the chiefs would have been beheaded if they had not followed the sultan's orders. Carr was forced to keep the lions in the consulate, where they were creating something of a nuisance. He had also been told that a few horses were on their way. What a predicament!
I spent some time in the ville nouvelle, most notably in St. Andrew's Church, which beautifully melds Moorish design with the essential church elements. When I first walked by someone had been asleep and I didn't have the heart to wake him up to let me in, but when I came back later (after my second attempt to visit the Musée de la Kasbah), the lively caretaker was there and was happy to show me around.
I then spent an hour or so getting blissfully lost in the medina. The whole medina experience is the one I'll remember most about Morocco: winding my way through narrow alleys, getting embarrassed when I came to a dead end, peering into doorways and watching old men hand-sew clothing, seeing kids playing on the street with a makeshift soccer ball constructed from a plastic bag stuffed with plastic bags, turning a corner and finding myself in a little square with a few fruit and vegetable stands and someone selling undercooked-sausage sandwiches. And the cats - Morocco is overrun with strays. Tangier's medina was small enough that I could get lost without really worrying whether I'd ever find my way out, and it also had a wonderful food section. I stocked up on cheap olives (there were various varieties, the most expensive of which were only Dh20 per kilogram), cheese, and fruit, even though I didn't really have anything to stock up for, simply because it was such a pleasure to shop in that environment. I wasn't hungry enough for a full dinner, as I'd been snacking all day, so I grabbed some harira (thick chickpea soup) and headed back to the Excelsior for a while, this time sitting inside and watching television in Arabic with all the other men. (Women rarely venture into these places, at least in cities as conservative as Tangier.) I couldn't understand anything, of course, except for Bush's speech: "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him." Abdul, my aggressive tout from the night before, had been the one to tell me of the capture of Saddam Hussein.
I took an early train to Rabat the next morning, but there wasn't much to see in the capital. The main attraction was the Hassan Tower, a 44-meter-high minaret built in the late 12th century - the attached mosque was destroyed by an earthquake, though a few pillars of it remain. King Mohammed V's mausoleum is also there, richly decorated, protected by several guards, and surrounded by throngs of Japanese tourists. The museum at Rabat's kasbah was open and had an interesting exhibit on the connection between the ancient cultures of southern Spain and northern Morocco, giving me some idea of what to look for when I visit Andalucía next week. The most interesting attraction in Rabat was the necropolis of Chellah, which contains the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia and the ruins of an old mosque and medersa (theology school). Like most of Morocco's cities, the Chellah was infested with stray cats, who ran up to me every time I tried to snack on my olives.
I had a decent chicken pastilla (filled pastry topped with cinnamon and sugar) for dinner at La Clef, a restaurant whose name, I thought, made it appropriate for a musician, and then searched for something to do at - but found nothing of interest in the ville nouvelle. Rabat's small medina, however, was full of life, with smoke emanating from the food stalls and kids playing in the street; it made a pleasant stroll to finish off the night.
An hour's train ride brought me to Casablanca, a big, sprawling city of more than three million, but little else. For six years, from 1987 to 1993, King Hassan II had the world's third-largest mosque built in Casablanca, mainly so Lonely Planet would have something to fill its pages on Casablanca with. It's one of the few mosques non-Muslims can visit, and while the obligatory guided tour cost a hefty Dh100, the building was stunning. The main prayer hall alone is 200 meters long, 100 meters wide, and 65 meters high and can accommodate 25,000 worshipers. There's a sliding roof and an electrically heated floor. All the decorations are of the utmost refinement and elegance, and nearly all the building's materials - cedar, stucco, tile - came from various regions of Morocco.
I spent two nights in Casablanca. On the first I dined at the Restaurant de l'Etoile Marocaine, where I had an excellent pigeon pastilla. A group of five English speakers came in right after me and it was all I could do not to overhear everything they were saying. From what I could tell, they were British, the daughter hadn't seen her father in a while, and her mother and two of her friends were also there. The conversation consisted of talk of the night's cuisine and all their travels, using the most amusing pretensions: "It's not so reliant on coriander." "Is Syria still your favorite place you've been?" "No, I think it's Jerusalem." "These are just like the pastillas I make, but mine serve eight." These last two examples were uttered by the 17-year-old friend, who had also stated, with calculated innocence and evident delight, that she had wondered why all the Indian men in Goa had given her so much attention on the beach. ("Were you wearing your skimpy black bikini?" asked her friend.) They occasionally looked in my direction, as if inviting me to partake in their conversation, but by the time that happened I couldn't say anything without making it obvious that I had been eavesdropping on their entire discussion, even if such eavesdropping had originally been unintentional. My only alternative would have been to say something meaningless, such as "So what brings you to Casablanca?" - but I don't think that city is quite off the beaten track enough to warrant that kind of opening, and it would have been such a letdown after their wonderful discourse. So the tension increased a bit, with me listening, and them very aware that I was listening, and none of us could do anything about it, because there was no convenient ice-breaker. I left first, and the father and I exchanged "Good night."
I wanted a beer after that, so - after the obligatory mint tea and a stop for ice cream - I stumbed upon a bar called Maharaja, run by a lively, talkative guy named Aziz, who spoke excellent English and had lived in New York City, among various places around the world. When we weren't speaking, I read Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari
, trying to deter the few prostitutes in the bar from joining me at my table.
Toward the end of my second day in Casablanca, I headed for the wealthy suburb of 'Ain Diab, to see how rich Moroccans live and play. By my unintentionally roundabout route, it took me almost two hours to walk there. It was quite intriguing. The Boulevard de la Corniche reminded me of Miami's South Beach - a broad drive flanking the Atlantic Ocean, with posh, exclusive restaurants, clubs, and hotels on each side, among some fairly mainstream eateries. It began with the Megarama movie theatre, where I might actually have been interested in seeing something, except everything was dubbed into French.
I'd remembered from the guidebook map that one of Africa's best restaurants, perhaps the
best, A Ma Bretagne, was nearby, so I wandered off in search of it. The Corniche ended and I turned right to continue along a well-lit highway with a broad sidewalk and well-dressed Casablancans. There was a Hyundai dealership and a KFC, but that's about it as far as the eye could see. It was only then that I rechecked the guidebook and noticed that it said, "A few kilometres south of the 'Ain Diab beaches...."
But I'd come all this way; I might as well walk the last stretch along the beach. After a dreary half hour I found the restaurant, but even though it was after 19:00 I was the only one there. The decor wasn't that splendid and the food options didn't quite grab me, but the menu was hilarious for the English. It was clear that the French had either been looked up word for word or been sifted through one of those on-line translators; nothing made any sense in English. "Riz aux petits légumes" became "Rice to the small vegetables." Anything that couldn't be translated was just left as it was, so "Quenelle de bar au lyonnaise" became "Quenelle of bar to the lyonnaise." My favorite, "Fromage de chèvre au cerfeuil sur nid de roquette," was rendered as "Cheese of goat to the chervil on nest of rocket."
So I walked the half hour back to the main strip of the Corniche, where I looked at a somewhat bland-looking hotel restaurant and a fancy-looking place called La Reserve, which had a big sign saying "Restaurant" but was in fact a nightclub, closed for a private party. Up and down the Corniche I walked, nothing quite hitting the spot; finally, having walked for about four hours, I settled on an elegantly decorated place called Bismane, which had pleasant live music played on string instruments and drums.
I wasn't walking back into town after all that, and I'd missed the last bus, so my only recourse was to take a taxi back to the hotel. The cabbie said I should pay him whatever I wanted; I offered Dh70 and he couldn't change my Dh100 note, so the fare had to be lowered to Dh50. I'd told Aziz I might come back to the Maharaja and chat for a while, but I was so tired after all that walking that I fell asleep instantly.
In the morning I took a train to Marrakech, probably Morocco's most heavily visited city. I'd saved Marrakech and Fès for last because they have such a reputation for aggressive touts and enormous medinas; I wanted to hit the manageable cities first. After finding a hotel, which took some effort as it's such a big tourist city, I visited the small Maison Tiskiwin, a home-turned-museum displaying cultural items of the northern-African peoples. Then I proceeded to the Dar Si Said, an absolutely gorgeous palace that now houses a museum focusing largely on various types of Moroccan wood (well, why not?), doors made from such wood, and ancient folk objects, including a wonderful, if small, assortment of musical instruments.
Marrakech's most famous location is probably the central square of its medina, Jemaa el-Fna. At night the square is home to about 200 food stalls, surrounded by vendors selling fresh orange juice, nuts, cinnamon tea, and pastries, themselves surrounded by street musicians, storytellers, snake charmers, fortune tellers, and so on, as well as a fair number of beggars. The whole square is flanked by restaurants and cafes with high terraces, from which you can watch the action - the mayhem, the lights, the huge cloud of smoke rising from the food stalls. All the food is cheap, delicious, and eaten without utensils. It's hard to imagine a more convivial ambience. On this first night, I sampled sheep's brains - served with a couple of other innards that I consumed without thinking too much about them - and snails, served in a cupful of their own juice, which is then drunk as a chaser.
I took a three-day tour out to Merzouga, to see the giant sand dunes of the western Sahara. The group consisted of 22 people, in two vans; mine included two brothers from Toronto, two sisters from New Zealand, a brother and sister from Grand Rapids and Chicago, an American couple, a lone traveler from England, and a lone Japanese traveler, whose name was Jun, though all the Moroccan guides referred to him simply as "Japan." Our driver, Jamel, was perhaps the most reticent guide I'd ever met; it took prodding just to learn his name, and he never provided any information on the places where we stopped.
The two hours just east of Marrakech were perhaps the most grueling I've ever spent on a good road. I've spent many hours on grueling bad roads; this one was well-maintained, and Jamel drove safely, but it was nonstop hairpin turns as we wound our way through valleys and over mountain passes. The scenery was pretty enough, but it didn't make up for the constant lurching - or the ever-present stench of the van's exhaust system.
We made our first scenic stop to see the kasbah at Ait Benhaddou ("Forty-five minutes' walk," Jamel said, not bothering to name the place we were visiting). It's a beautiful kasbah in terrific condition, with sharp crenellations and niches and trapezoidal towers vaguely reminiscent of the Potala Palace. To get there, we had to ford a small stream or - much more interesting - pay the locals Dh20 to ride across on their donkeys. Once across, a boy named Mohammed, who claimed to be 13 but looked much younger, showed me around the kasbah and then into his house, that of one of ten families in the village. I met his little sister and brother and his father, who served us tea and bread and was attempting to fix a remarkably dilapidated stereo. Mohammed's room was completely bare except for a pillow on the floor, three touristy postcards on the wall, and a hanging calendar from a ferry company.
We drove a further 30 kilometers or so to Ouarzazate, where we stopped just long enough for lunch - not long enough, sadly, to check out the town or its splendid kasbah. The rush was on to get to the Dadès Gorge before sunset, and the drive was splendid: We passed through a lunar-looking landscape with red rocks looking like large boils, and this gave way to rounded rocks all intertwined, like giant brains. In the valleys below, Berber villages (the Berbers are the traditionally nomadic people who came to Morocco for its temperate climate) were made out of the same rocks, the same color, blending perfectly into the landscape.
We stopped for the night at a hotel in the Dadès Gorge, arriving just before sunset. A banquet was set up, with large communal vegetarian tajines, plus boiled chicken. There wasn't much to do after dinner but play cards by candlelight, as the electricity, powered by noisy generators in nearby buildings, was turned off at 22:30.
The next morning we were off to the Todra Gorge, another breathtaking landscape of tall massifs and red brilliance. En route we stopped at the Berber village of Ait Hajali, where a more personable guide, Mohammed, led us through farmland, explaining how the river is diverted into various villages' wheat and corn fields using canals that are open and closed on a fixed schedule set by the villages' chiefs. He then led us through Ait Hajali's winding kasbah and to a hut, where we could watch the carpet-weaving process in action. The ultimate goal, of course, was to make a sale - and a man named Hassan showed us carpet after carpet while a woman demonstrated the time-tested technique of cleaning and straightening wool by hand, using a wooden brush, and then weaving it on a loom. (What a far cry this was from the noisy, giant textile machines at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester!)
And, by golly, I bought two camel-hair carpets, one large and one small. I'd thought about ultimately acquiring one in any case (I've had an apartment for three years that I've never bothered to really decorate), and better to buy direct from the creators than from the aggressively touting salesmen in the medinas of Marrakech and Fès - the prices were better here, too. The carpets really were beautiful, and Hassan explained all the symbolism in their design: the pyramidal shapes representing the Berbers' nomadic life in the mountains and in their tents, a group of nine squares representing the nine planets.
A long afternoon drive took us to the highlight of the tour, the Erg Chebbi, the enormous dunes near the town of Merzouga. Reaching our campsite required an hour's journey by camel: three caravans of seven camels each. I got on. The camel stood up. I said to the person behind me, "You know what I just realized? I'm really quite terrified."
I've never been fond of heights, especially those that involve a creature with a mind of its own. We started off in hard-packed sand, and the docile camels plodded steadily. Each step - easy enough for the camel - resulted in my enduring a back-forth lurch with which my inner legs were none too happy.
The sun was setting. As we continued, the sand became softer, and I began to make peace with the experience. We ascended and descended the dunes, often proceeding along the ridges. Going uphill was satisfying - it was never comfortable
, but the strides were small, and I felt as if I had the best grip on the metal handle, my only source of stability. Going downhill was grueling, because the camel would step and then slide forward, causing my body to jerk forward as if I were going to plunge. A gentle incline was best.
At times, much to the amusement of the person in front of me, I'd talk to my camel: "That's it. Tough hill. Good job. Good boy." They were all male camels.
We rode for an hour, by which point I could barely see the camels in front of me; I could only make out their long legs and stretched necks. They looked like something prehistoric.
We arrived at our campsite, where we separated into tents of about seven people each. One of the guides played Senegalese music on the bongos, and he taught us a folk ballad. It had been warm because of the cloud cover, but steadily the clouds slid away, like a curtain, revealing the stars and giving us a chill.
Dinner appeared an hour or two later: four-person tajines eaten with bread; there were no utensils. After the obligatory tea, a few of us played cards until it became a reasonably appropriate hour to retire. It took me an hour to fall asleep: I'm not used to bed before midnight.
We were woken up at 6:30, and we were off a half hour later, back on the camels. We rode around the biggest dune, down which some American tourists were sand-boarding. It was just after sunrise, but as the sun was at our backs it wasn't very impressive - at least not until the end, when we turned and the sun was to the left, giving the camels' shadows twelve-foot-long legs. By now the dunes were closer together, in varyingly skewed pyramidal shapes, giving the impression of cake frosting.
As a guide helped me off my camel, he noticed we had exactly the same kind of wristwatch.
After breakfast, we drove the 11 hours back to Marrakech, including an attractive lunch stop and those two hours of hairpin turns, which seemed even more endless after such a long journey.
Seven of us - the two New Zealanders, the Midwestern brother and sister, and the American couple - had become rather good friends at this point, and we stuck together the next day. We hired a guide, Mustapha, to show us around the souqs, the medina's bustling market maze. We saw men and children hammering iron into useful objects; we saw leather workers cutting soles for slippers; we saw live chickens crammed into cages, awaiting their turn to be slaughtered and fed into an ominous grinding machine that removed the parts consumers would just as soon not acquaint themselves with. And then, of course, were all the items for sale: pottery, lamps, slippers, and the ubiquitous carpets, among other things. Motorcycles, bicycles, donkeys and carts, beggars, sneaky children, and old men with canes crowded the covered alleyways.
Part of what made the experience pleasurable was that nearly all the items for sale were functional. There were plenty of schlocky souvenirs, but the vast majority were things I'd consider taking home with me. The incorrigible and entertaining Mustapha, who consistently made fun of his rather large size, seemed to know everyone in the medina; he was frequently shaking hands with people and introducing us to his favorite shopkeepers, giving guidance on how much things should cost: There are no fixed prices in the souqs (except for food); everything requires hard bargaining skills.
Mustapha also took us to the Museum of Marrakech, noted more for its regally decorated interior than for the temporary art exhibitions it house, and to the Ali ben Youssef medersa, a theological school built 600 years ago. To be accepted, students had to know the Koran by heart, and then they spent seven years in the school, living in austere cell-like dormitories, two or four to a tiny room. We also were given an explanation of the beautiful Koutoubia mosque, which can hold 20,000 people. Marrakech's oldest mosque, it was finished in the late 12th century, after an adjacent mosque was torn down when it was discovered it wasn't pointing toward Mecca. The architect of the former mosque was duly executed.
Some of us also took a walk into the ville nouvelle to buy tickets for tonight's midnight bus to Fès. We all happen to be on the same schedule, so we're sticking together for a couple more days. Fès has a notoriously enormous and labyrinthine medina in which I can't wait to get lost.
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