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Several people have started following my blog recently, and I wanted to say hello and welcome. Also, I love comments! And now, back to our regularly scheduled overly-long story…

Our trip to Oudane, continued from parts 56 and 7.

Our visit was short, just 2 full days in the village with a day each end of travel. On our second day, we went to visit a family that lives at the very edge of the plateau. Let me tell you about how we met them…

When Yahiya first moved to Oudane, in 2002, he invited us to come and visit. At that time, Oudane had no electricity, no cell phone reception, no telephone, no internet, nothing but wind and sand and innumerable stars in a sky that stretched on to infinity. “Just come, ask at any house in the village, and they will come and find me,” he assured us.

And so, about 6 months later one February weekend, we packed our 4×4 with water and sleeping bags and food and set off, bumping uncertainly down the unpaved road. It took us 8 hours of driving, including the last part where the road is more than just a set of tracks in the sand, but not by much. We picked up a hitchhiker (it is safe, or was safe, to do this back then), an old man in a stained robe, who sat in the back with the kids and watched perplexedly as they snacked on raw carrot sticks. I had the feeling raw carrots had not played any kind of role in his diet up to that point.

Eventually we bumped up the plateau and pulled up in front of the first house we saw. We asked the boy standing out front if he knew Yahiya, a high school teacher. “No,” he said. He went to fetch his mother. We asked her. “No, I don’t know him,” she said, “but come in! come in!”

A little worried and perplexed, we allowed ourselves to be guided through a doorway, into a salon. We were sat down on thin matlas against a concrete wall, were given cushions for our elbows. They sent someone out in search of our friend, and in the meantime they served us a meal and told us we could stay with them for as long as we wanted, a week, two weeks, a month, no problem. When Yahiya eventually appeared and joined us for couscous, they still urged us to stay with them. They were a family and therefore better equipped to host a family than a single man, they said. We turned them down, but the experience has stayed in our minds for years, this beautiful example of the hospitality of the desert, of a people that would take in complete strangers and welcome them.

We sat once more in the same room, although it looked different now. There were lots of teenagers, kids we didn’t recognize, who made us tea and practiced their English on us. Our host send one of the girls out to a local shop (I am tempted to put that word in quotes, since nothing in Oudane looks like any kind of shop seen anywhere else on the planet) to buy me a muluffa, which they draped around me. Then we were served banarva, which is sort of a stew of meat and onions, eaten with bread. There were also little bundles of intestines, made by coiling intestines round one’s finger and tying the end round it. Eating intestines is a skill I never managed to hone, and our hosts noticed Donn and I skillfully avoiding the small clumps. They taught us the word for intestine in Hassiniya, which I used to know, forgot, relearned, and have forgotten again. (Debbie?)

Afterwards we sit back, full, which is a mistake, because the second course comes in. This is marou ilHam, meat and rice, and it’s tasty, well-seasoned (which isn’t always the case) and steaming hot. Of course we’re sitting on the floor, eating with our hands. I am going to admit that I don’t really like eating rice and pasta dishes with my hands, although my husband and kids do. When we lived there, I could do it, of course, but given the chance, I always used a spoon. My inability to eat with my hands greatly displeased my host. I would take a small bit, halfheartedly work it into a sort of egg shaped ball, and pop it in my mouth, often scattering bits of rice. He took it upon himself to feed me. He made me an enormous ball and slipped it into my hand, motioning that I should put the whole thing in my mouth. I tried and nearly choked. I was perfectly happy making my own, avoiding the more gristly bits of meat and making small balls of rice, but he kept insisting that I was doing it wrong and making me large perfectly-round balls of rice. Embarrassing for only one of us, apparently.

Later that evening, we walked down the hill to visit Chez Zaida, Oudane’s only auberge. When we spent that long-ago summer month there, we got to know Zaida, a warm, friendly, out-going woman who invited us for lunch and used to visit us and play chess with Elliot while helping us with our Hassiniya. At the time, Zaida was in the process of opening her auberge, and we were thrilled to see her success. The auberge is located on the outskirts of Oudane, built on sand instead of rock, and I heard stories of flush toilets!

Zaida remembered us, and settled us on thin matlas outside while we caught up a bit. She’s made many friends through her inn, and spent a month traveling through Europe staying with people who wanted to return her hospitality. We showed her pictures of our kids. Her nephews took good care of us, bringing out cushions that were as big as they were! Her friend let me hold her son, the only baby in Oudane who wasn’t afraid of my freakishly-coloured hair and eyes (blonde and blue).

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On our last visit, when Zaida was just opening her first auberge, she served us the specialty food of Oudane–luxoor. These are buckwheat crepes (or something like that) served with camel gravy. Traditionally, the pancakes are piled in a bowl and the gravy poured on top. You eat by digging your hand down through the layers. Tasty but weird. I mentioned to Zaida how much I’d liked them and how good they were, innocently, not realizing I was basically asking her to make them again. (I am truly clueless like this, and it’s embarrassing. I’m old enough to know better) Of course she invited us to stay for supper, so we settled in for the most Western-style meal we’d ever had in the desert.

Our food was served in courses. First came a bowl of savory, flavorful vegetable soup. Then came the luxoor, only we ate one at a time, on a plate, with knives and forks. Then we had tinned fruit salad to end with, plus of course the sweet mint tea.

We had a lovely evening, lying back in the warm dusk, drinking tea and chatting of old times, of trips taken, of new sights seen. Afterwards we walked up the hill to Yahiya’s home once again.

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When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.

We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?

In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.

IMG_1094This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?

That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.

We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.

Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.

IMG_1801Look how pink Donn looks! I don’t know why. In real life he is not raspberry coloured.

We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.

That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.

As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.

In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”

It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.

Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.

broken chair one

I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”

See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.

And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.

I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries.  And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.

On the last weekend of summer, we took an Iraqi family camping for their first time. It was their idea. In July, Donn and the boys went with a friend of his and his son on a “man-cation,” which is basically an all-male camping trip involving a lot of bacon and red meat, no vegetables, and, I imagine, a lot of jokes about bodily functions (just guessing here). I was telling Maude about it, while Donn showed Harold his photos, and she said, “Maybe we can go camping with you.” They wanted a vacation, and what better way to introduce them to American life? (Well, maybe Disneyland…)

Before we moved overseas, Donn and I were backpackers. We didn’t do much car camping, as we called it, which is where you drive someplace and set up your tent. I only remember a few times–near Balanced Rocks in the wilderness, with Donn’s parents once on Orcas Island, at Ollalie Lake when Elliot was 6 weeks old.

When we lived in Mauritania, we did lots of desert camping, which is basically when you drive into the desert, stop when you feel like it, and set up a tent. After a while, a shepherd will come by. “Is this all right?” you will ask, and he will nod slowly.

A few minutes later, he will say, “Is there anything you need?” “No, no,” you will assure him.

A few minutes later, he will ask, “Do you have anything you don’t need?” Sometimes he will ask for specifics–our friends traveled with a mini-pharmacy, and found that something as basic as tylenol was much appreciated and sought after.

(Want more? Posts here and here and here and here.)

But Harold and Maude are from Baghdad, which before the infrastructure was destroyed was a modern city. Even now, without electricity and clean water, houses are still tiled, filled with beautiful rugs and fine furniture. I would have picked a camping site with electricity, flush toilets, even showers. Donn wasn’t thinking that way. His friend told him of the beauties of the Metolius River in Central Oregon, its clean, clear fast-flowing waters, only a couple of hours drive away. So off we went.

“The Metolius?” said all our friends doubtfully. “On Labour Day weekend? You’ll never get a spot.”

But we did. In fact, we found 2 spots. The first was in a campground off the beaten track, with only one other family there, away amongst the trees. We found an enormous double spot, situated in a corner where a creek joined the river. It was lovely and lonely. But too lonely for our friends. “The children will not be able to sleep here,” proclaimed Harold. I must admit we wondered if it was the children who wouldn’t be able to sleep or someone else, but we agreed to look for another campground.

We found another one, and snagged a spot right on the river on a site surrounded by tents. Even though we had ample room to set up two tents, I noticed our friends pitched theirs right next to ours. Privacy is so much less important in some cultures than in others.

The Metolius really is gorgeous–clear and deep, full of browns and greens with the occasional bright glimpse of a silvery fish twisting through the depths. It’s surrounded by Ponderosa pines, their red trunks and green needles providing a pleasant contrast and scenting the air.

There was a slight problem. Our campground didn’t have water. You had to load the empty jerry-can into the car and drive a couple of miles to the next campground and fill it. It really wasn’t bad–we both had brought bottled water, and there was the river, rushing swift and cold and glittering under the full moon.

The first night, Maude and I went to the toilet at dusk. It was a fine toilet–a pit toilet, yes, but spacious and cleaned daily. When we came out, she said, “It’s very dark here.” “That’s because there’s no electricity,” I pointed out.

“Oh.” She thought about it for a minute. “Maybe next year,” she said philosophically.

America–it’s just not as developed as you think it’s going to be before you move here!

I explained the lack of electricity was a choice, that we wanted places where we could get back to nature, with no wires slicing the sky. She agreed but I’m not sure it was whole-hearted.

Her kids like s’mores okay, but much preferred the joys of roasting marshmallows. (I’m the same way myself)

We cooked tikka–what we would call kebobs–over the open fire each night, then roasted marshmallows. The moon was full and bright. Our camping neighbours were nice. The nights were freezing cold, the afternoons were burning. The river was icy but there was a spot on a point where the kids and Donn could plunge in and plunge right back out again. Maude got in too, fully clothed, but I didn’t as I hadn’t brought enough changes of clothes; instead I stepped in bravely to a shallow part, and stepped out just as bravely after about 2 minutes. Abel stayed in the longest and his legs turned brilliant red. Elliot sliced his foot open on an underground root and bled, most dramatically, a large puddle onto the grass, but I decided he’d be fine without stitches and he was. I sacrificed a towel to bind it up and the stain came right out in the wash. Naturally, as I didn’t care if that towel was stained.

Overall, I think the trip was a success. We’ve heard from other Iraqi friends that it was a bit too primitive and rough for our friends, but at the same time, they liked it. Sort of. I think next year, we’ll try it again–maybe at a campground with flush toilets and showers and electricity.

(Sorry for lack of pictures, but as you may remember, I no longer have a camera. Instead, here is one of Donn’s, a long exposure taken by moonlight, with the firelight making the trees look especially red.)

Time passes, the world revolves around the sun, and things expire and must be renewed. Reflecting on this one day, as is our wont, we realized that we needed to renew our passports this year—at least, the kids and I do.

Casablanca street scene

In Morocco, an American citizen can only renew her (or his) passport in Casablanca. Although the embassy is conveniently located right here in Rabat, citizen services are in Casa. In their continuing efforts to provide US citizens with the very best customer service on the planet, it is open from 8:30-9:30 and then again from 1:30 to 3:00. It’s closed on Fridays and weekends, and takes all holidays off—both American and Moroccan. It’s located right downtown in a busy part of a crowded city—in other words, parking is a nightmare. In spite of knowing all these things, we decided to drive down instead of taking the train. The kids all had Wednesday off school, and since they had to physically be there, we decided Wednesday morning was the perfect time to do this. They disagreed, feeling rather strongly that a day off school should, in a just and fair universe, equal a day to sleep in. Ilsa in particular was rather vocal and nasal about it. Poor child; she has many grievances. It comes with being 13.

So today we got up at the crack of dawn—literally, with me standing on the balcony eyeing the pale pink sky and the swifts, waking up with us and already wheeling and turning amongst the thin clouds. We brought a lot of books into the car and drove off to Casa, fearing the morning commute traffic, but finding it not bad.

We got into traffic proper once the autoroute had faded into what we were hoping was the Route El Jedida. We had google maps, but one thing we’ve learned the hard way—in Morocco, even if the streets are marked, they might be marked with a different name than that which is shown on a map, which may be a different name again from what everybody calls it. (Also, do not under any circumstances let a Moroccan draw you a map. I realize how this sounds—like I’m generalizing, like I’m looking down on them, like I’m racist. I’m really not. It’s just that I believe they are looking at space a different way than I am. I’m talking about Moroccan people who are intelligent and well educated and speak a billion languages. Talk to them about world politics or something! Just don’t let them draw you a map. If you have to follow a Moroccan map, try approaching it upside down and backwards.)

We drove on and on, not recognizing anything from the map. Unfortunately (cough!), we’d left a bit late, and the clock was getting closer and closer to 8:30. “At least your make-up looks lovely,” said my husband snidely. The road came to an end at an enormous, clogged roundabout. Unsure, we headed off to the right.

The new road dead-ended so we randomly turned left. We’ve both been in Casa several times so things often looked tantalizingly familiar, but they weren’t actually. The road ended again and we randomly turned right—I thought I might have spotted the famous mosque which was in the same general area as the consulate. We got tangled in traffic again. The clock was approaching 9:00.

We pulled into a gas station to show the attendants our maps. All the attendants gathered round. Soon our maps were being passed hand to hand, as about 9 men crowded round and discussed it in rapid Arabic. I’m not sure, but I think they were discussing how to read the map, if they recognized anything on the map, and who among them spoke French and could explain it to us. Finally an older man, someone who didn’t actually work at the gas station, came up to us and gave us directions.

Success! We finally found the consulate. No roads were marked, so we had to ask 2 other people (a woman selling newspapers and a guy on a scooter) for street names. It took us a long time to get there. By this time, it was 9:10. We drove around and around the area, looking in vain for a parking spot, but there was no spot to be found. Each giant circle, thanks to traffic, took 10 minutes. Finally we found a spot. “It’s too small,” said Donn. “If anyone can do it, you can,” I said heart-warmingly. And I was right! He parallel-parked us in a teeny-tiny spot without even bumping the other two cars. It was 9:29.

We ran the four blocks to the consulate, which is surrounded by enormous blocks of concrete planted with flowers, a mixed message at best. There were lots of guards. The first lot sent us to the second lot, who pointed us across the street to a third. The third guy looked at his watch as we panted up, then at our navy blue passports. “It’s 9:30,” he said accusingly. “Please,” we said. “Parking,” we said, gesturing. “Go!” he told us, speaking into his walkie talkie. So back across the street we went, past the second lot again, and into the consulate itself.

We were told to cut an entire line of non-Americans, which felt sort of rude and sort of fun! We went happily through security (Donn: Ilsa, why on earth did you bring a whole backpack? Ilsa: It has my books in it. Donn: sigh…) and then submitted all our forms successfully, even though we’d forgotten to measure the twins and had to guess at their actual height. Then we had second breakfasts at a little café, and had another, more relaxed, traffic adventure that included someone driving a fork-lift blindly into incoming traffic, as we searched unsuccessfully for the auto-route to bring us home.

And, since it seems every time I mention going to Casa people sigh enthusiastically at how exotic and exciting it all is, I tried to get some snaps of the real Casa, which is crowded, polluted, noisy, and industrial. Oh and the traffic is worse than Rabat!

Yes I did take that from the car window at a red light. How could you tell?

But then I remembered visiting Turin, in Italy. Everyone said it was a horrible industrial city, but we just wandered around the downtown area, totally entranced. We loved it. So maybe there are those who love Casa too. But…which part is enticing and exotic?

Yep, through the windshield. You guys are good!


Typical Casa. I didn’t even take pictures of the industrial area.

Still, if you ever are in Casablanca, perhaps at the US Consulate, and you need to have your hair done, you can always go with the interestingly-named option.

It’s FULL service!

PS from my last post: The “balle” isn’t until the end of school, and all his friends are either going to be out of town or already have dates! I’m still working on him.

On Friday afternoon, I got into a minivan (for real! There aren’t a lot of them here, but this was a real honest-to-goodness American mini-van) with 6 other women and headed out of town. We were headed to Meknes, where two of my wonderful friends had planned a little get-away for a few of us expats here in Rabat. In Meknes there is a riad which also houses a small cooking school; by appointment only, you can sign up to learn how to make one of several classic Moroccan dishes. I’d heard of it but never been, but several of my friends had.

I was the only woman in the car who spoke French, and none of us spoke Arabic, so I was on call as we rolled into Meknes. But by following the classic “This looks right” and “I just don’t think we should take this left,” we managed to find our way to the riad with only one false turn.

A riad is an old Moroccan house built in several stories around a courtyard. They’re found in the medinas, or the ancient cities, all over the country. Within the past 10 years or so, it has become very trendy for Westerners to buy them, redo them, and turn them into small hotels; they are also very popular places to stay. But at their heart, they simply old family homes, whose walls have probably seen generations of fat, curly-headed toddlers and old grandmothers coming to grief on their steep steep stairs.

Since this place isn’t used as a hotel, we had the entire place to ourselves. And we had a blast. Highlights included me sharing a room with Denise and staying up till 2 a.m. laughing hysterically (I told Ilsa and she raised her eyebrows at me), and a chocolate fondue with mounds of fresh strawberries, pineapple, apples, and pound cake for dipping—plus real marshmallows and graham crackers. (Two of the women are Embassy-connected, which means they can get American stuff).

It was a fun, relaxing time. At one point, Denise and I and another friend decided to work off just a teeny bit of all that chocolate we’d been eating, and we wandered round the residential part of the medina, looking for the touristy bit. We found it eventually but needed to get back for lunch and after all, the point was the walk.

Meknes is an imperial city with a rich history full of bloodshed and glory and tiled arches, but this really wasn’t the time to play tourist. The goal of this trip was more chocolate-oriented. There’ll be time to go again and see all the area has to offer.

Yes that is a line from the U2 song. Good job recognizing it! I already used “All is Quiet on NY’s Day” as a post heading last year.

And you can all be happy that I was busy on Thursday, because I was going to do a look-back-on-09 post, and you would have been bored stiff. I was thankful for my blog, though, because in retrospect the year seemed better than I remember it feeling at the time.

We said goodbye to 2009 in the most uneventful way possible—by pretending to Donn that we had all gone to sleep. We have friends from Portland who are traveling in Africa and who had a 12 hour layover in Casa on the 1st, and we were planning to rise at 5 in order to be presentable and in the Mohamed V airport by 7:30, by which point they would presumably have made it through passport control and collected the two suitcases (!!!) they were bringing us (!!!). Donn was going to do the driving through the predawn darkness, since we realized years ago that I can drive between midnight and 3 a.m. but not after that until at least, oh, 9 or 10. I’m not a morning person.

So Donn, who is old now, wanted everyone to go to bed about 10:30 or so. The family was resistant. New Year’s Eve! A new decade! We’re not that old/young! Donn was adamant. He wouldn’t sleep if we were up partying. How could we party without him? etc. We were very persuasive, but in our hearts we knew he wouldn’t sleep if we were up. The place just isn’t that big. So, as a loving family should, we were compliant (cough!) but slow, so that although no one was actually up toasting each other at midnight, no one was actually asleep either. It was a beautiful compromise, 4 of us felt.

Elliot got us all up at 5. If I was 14 and my parents wanted me up that early, it wouldn’t occur to me to set my alarm clock—I’d figure that was their problem. Not so with my Foundling Child. (I’ve often wondered how I got such a punctual child and what the fairies did with mine) I resisted until 5:15, the time I had actually set my alarm clock. Yeah, so I got an extra 15 minutes in bed. I paid for it by being 3rd in the shower.

We were on the road by 6:20 a.m., travel mugs in hand. We made good time and it was pretty fun to glimpse some familiar faces as the doors slid open for a minute. Once everyone was through, we headed over to the hotel for breakfast. Royal Air Maroc may fly some pretty impossible hours, but they will put you in a hotel for these long layovers. Our friends caught the shuttle, which came right away (my last time it took 2 hours), and we followed them over to the hotel. We breakfasted together, hung out in a waiting area. Gradually they all drifted back to their rooms to sleep, and we said goodbye.

We drove home, where we were all casual and mature and had tea and everything before opening the two suitcases. Or not. Inside were Christmas presents that we’d ordered each other online, plus gifts from our friends. Also one of the cases was stuff we left in Portland when we came to Morocco, including some books. I also got some things I won online from “Go Red for Women,” including a pre-printed shopping list with many helpful suggestions not available in Rabat (whole wheat pasta, low sodium chicken broth), and a little notepad with the website at the top. (www.goredforwomen.org) I’ve put it next to the phone, so every time I’m chatting I can look down and read “gored for women” and try to think of a witty comeback. Something about bullfighters maybe?

Presents are so fun! I got cozy new shirts and a sweater, and new running shoes—no more shin splints!—and coffee, and chocolate chips. We got root beer extract, which is pretty cool. You mix ½ tablespoon with 8 T of sugar and add it to a litre of water and you have root beer! It tastes pretty good, and is creamy and sweet, and the kids are beside themselves with joy. Root beer! Did you know you can only get root beer in America, and that it is my children’s favorite soft drink? It’ll be even better once we get fizzy water! We have enough to make something like 60 gallons, which you have to admit would be a pretty wild party.

So all in all, it was an auspicious start to the new year/decade. Here’s hoping it only gets better in ways that matter most.

How was yours? What did you do?

Before I moved to Morocco, I had barely even heard of Ceuta, and I certainly couldn’t pronounce it. (Variations exist. Apparently it’s “Soota” not my clever Spanish-sounding-to-me “Swe-etta.” The Arabs call it Sebta) Ceuta is a city in Spain, but not on mainland Spain. It is a tiny toehold that Spain maintains from colonial times, situated on the edge of the continent of Africa and surrounded by Morocco on 3 sides.

Ceuta is about a 4 hour drive from Rabat, or 2 ½ if you believe our friend Russ. (Aside: don’t.) People go there for a day’s shopping trip. Why not us?

We decided to go before the kids got out of school for vacation, since we wanted to shop mostly for them. We set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. On Mondays, the twins stay at school for lunch, and I’d already made their sandwiches. Elliot had been charged with getting all 3 kids up, dressed, fed and off to school by 8. I kissed him goodbye when we left about 5:30.

We set off through in the dark, rainy night, catching glimpses of the moon through the ragged clouds. We were halfway there when I called the house, to be assured that everyone was up and fed and dressed at least.

We drove through a watery pale dawn, alongside crashing waves and through some dramatic hills, eventually arriving at the border. The border has quite a reputation, and we weren’t really sure quite what to expect.
We joined a long, scraggly line, one of 3. We gradually inched forward. The car in front of us wasn’t even trying—every time there was space to move forward, the driver and a passenger would get out and push. I don’t know if they were saving gas or putting off dealing with a harder problem, but I did wonder if Spain was going to be happy to get a car like that.

Around us, all seemed chaotic. People were streaming along one side, obviously foot passengers, but throughout the 3 lines of cars, people were walking back and forth. There were no signs anywhere.

Donn had talked to friends, so he sort of knew what to do. He got out of the car with our passports. I was in charge of moving the car forwards, which mostly consisted of me reading a book and keeping a corner of my eye on the car in front. At one point, the 3 lines merged into 2, but by smiling my special smile at the guy trying to cut me, I managed to not lose too much space.

I was really stressed the entire time that I would get to the front of the line and have to try to enter Spain without my passport or my husband, but I needn’t have worried. By the time the 2 lines merged into one, Donn was back.

Meanwhile, Donn was having his own fun. There were four windows let into a building that ran parallel to the traffic—in other words, there wasn’t really space for lines to form. Each window was numbered, but there was no other signage to indicate which window might be for which type of person, so Donn joined a group of women at the first window. They let him stand there about 10 minutes before telling him it was the women’s line. So he went on to Window 2, where they told him after about 5 minutes that it was just for Moroccans. On to Window 3, where there was no line but the official told him he needed Window 4, for foreigners. You could not tell by looking who should be in any line. We saw other men in the women’s line. But, should you ever decide to cross from Morocco to Spain at Ceuta, it’s Window 4. Remember that.

The Spanish side was simple. We moved in an orderly line, and a man briefly examined and stamped our passports and waved us forward. And we were in Ceuta, a small city built out on an isthmus, surrounded on 3 sides by the deep blue sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. It was a gorgeous day if you could be out of the wind. Whenever I see the Med, I think of how Homer called it “the wine-dark sea.” Seriously, what makes it that deep, deep blue?

We had no idea where to go in Ceuta so we just drove around. It’s not very big, but it is dense. We found a cute downtown area that had lots of boutiques and no parking, and drove around fruitlessly for about 40 minutes before finding a parking garage with, and this is brilliant, little lights above each parking spot, so that you merely had to glance around for a green light to know where a free spot was.

Out into the wind! We wandered round the shopping area. It was fun to be once again in a place decorated for Christmas. Rabat has decorated streets year round, since this is where the king’s main residence is, and it is a very pretty city. But it was still nice to go again to a place with public spaces decorated with angels and shepherds and wise men on camels, with large white stars and trees strung with lights in the plazas and bells ringing.

It wasn’t an unqualified success. We were looking for specific things and we either didn’t find them at all or did find them and couldn’t afford them. (Elliot wants a drum set more than anything else on earth right now, but the one we found was twice the price it would be in America. If only we could buy it there and somehow get it here. Who wants to come visit?) We did find a large grocery store, where we got some treats for Christmas. We stopped for a late lunch and shared a variety of tapas. We love Spain.

The kids, meanwhile, had come home from school and deposited their backpacks, then walked over to a friend’s house. She fed them supper and brought them home, where they did their homework and put themselves to bed. I know! Before you fall over in amazement at how good and mature my children are, remember that they were very proud of being trusted to look after themselves.

Coming home, we experienced the border in reverse—easy through the Spanish side, a bit more complicated on the Moroccan, mostly because at one point there were suddenly 5 lanes of traffic battling it out (literally) to enter a roundabout. Sigh. Welcome home.

We stopped for a late supper in an outdoor roadstand in the mountains. It was freezing, with an icy rain pelting down. We huddled under the roof and ate harira soup and olives and dates and kefta brochettes and fries, until we were warm and full. It was 11 when we got home, to carry in groceries and fall into bed, exhausted.

Sorry, I know the photos didn’ t really come out and certainly don’t do it justice, but I’m posting them anyways to give you an idea. Here’s a last one of dragons on a building.


Back to Chefchaouen for one last look.

Once in 20 years, I take a photo that Donn didn’t see. These are always wildly exciting times! Last time (i.e. 20 years ago) he sulked and nearly quit photography as a career option because he couldn’t believe that I could just pop along and take this amazing photo that he hadn’t even seen. This wasn’t quite as dramatic–few things are anymore now that we’re all grown up–but he is still just so bummed that I saw all these angles and curves and he didn’t.  So I’m smug, and happy, and feeling good about my “artistic eye” and not letting it go to my head, since this is apparently a twice in a lifetime thing.

The rest aren’t that exciting, but I like them.

The name Chefchaouen means something like “look at the two horns” because you are supposed to see the two horns that curve round the town. This is one of them, at sunset.

Looking across the valley

Staircase to rooftop terrace at Dar Mounir

Sunset

Et voila! I’m actually, believe it or not, DONE talking about our two day trip! Except…did I remember to tell you that we used only one tank of gas for the entire trip?

Parts one, two, three and four here)

The next morning, we allowed ourselves to be caught and cleaned like good little fish by a waiter trolling for customers from the row of restaurants that line the square. This metaphor was emphasized by the fact that we should have gone to one of the larger restaurants on either side, which were full of Moroccans. There was just one other expat couple in ours, and the omelette Donn ordered was distinctly fishy.

The coffee was adequate however, and we filled up on toast and jam and freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is a basic not a luxury here. We were in a hurry, because we had a long drive ahead of us, and friends who would be waiting for us to pick up our children.

Chefchaouen is east and north of Rabat. Instead of heading back the way we’d come, we opted to follow another one of those tiny yellow squiggles on the map northwards as far as the Mediterranean coast, at which point we could turn left (west) and head over to Tangiers, then catch the autoroute down the Atlantic coast towards home.

We ended up on the worst road yet, but it was worth it. The edges were mice-nibbled and the tarmac was cracked and pitted, and best of all, it was only one lane wide and we were up in the mountains at this point. I will say that the oncoming trucks with their overbearing drivers weren’t what scared me—it was my photographer husband’s habit of driving directly without pause onto these very narrow turnouts, perched precariously high and with no guard rail, grinding the wheels down into the gravel and then leaving the car running while he got out to inspect the view. In retrospect, his photos make it all worthwhile, especially given that we didn’t plunge to our deaths.

I really just want to show you pictures, but first I am going to comment on a frustrating reality—no one would allow us to photograph them. Donn’s ethics forbid him from using a long lens and taking blurry photographs unaware, so we always ask nicely, and no one would agree. This was incredibly frustrating because the people were so beautiful; women with faces like old wrinkly apples and little pink cheeks, men in hooded dejellabas like characters in a medieval drama. We are used to people not wanting to be photographed. It was the same in Mauritania. But there, usually if you talked to someone for a while, they’d agree. In Chefchaouen, we never got anyone to agree. One young man even shouted at us for photographing him, although we hadn’t—we were photographing a building, using telephoto lenses, and he wasn’t in our pictures at all.

I’ve been looking at calendars and postcards with people in them, and they are all blurry. It’s evident that not everyone shares Donn’s ethics. I must admit that I don’t even share them myself! Here is Donn, waiting till this woman passed so he could ask her if he could photograph her. She said no, of course, and that even after we chatted with her for about 10 minutes.

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And these two boys came running up to watch Donn photograph the valley near their homes. They hung out and chatted rapidly, but I knew they’d never let me take their picture.

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I really cannot recommend this drive highly enough. First you wind through the mountains…

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…then you come down through the hills and out into a truly horrific market, which is sort of like driving down a crowded aisle at Safeway, only with live sheep and oncoming traffic, then you make it through that, thankfully, and come out here:

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which pretty much makes everything in your life meaningless unless you can move here and go for long walks on the beach every morning, or something like that.

We stopped for coffee at a fascinatingly-named cafe: DSCN3954

Cafe Carrion. Roadkill Restaurant. We stuck to the coffee, which was excellent. Muy bueno, as they say in this part of the world. (Spanish was more common than French)

We meant to stop right on the Med for pizza, but we somehow just kept going…

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stopping at hairpin bends to photograph and getting passed by trucks full of men, or sometimes trucks full of sheep, who drove agonizingly slowly up the hills and then whizzed rapidly down, practically going up on two wheels on the bends,

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and we didn’t actually stop for lunch till 5 p.m., by which point we’d left the coast and were cutting back across the mountains to the autoroute.

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Donn had grilled meat again and I had a really good lamb tagine with raisins and onions and potatoes, followed with Moroccan tea. We made it home safely, long after dark, picked up our filthy and exhausted children (Me: Abel, when did you last shower? Abel: I have NO idea! Me: I have an idea) and I decided to write approximately 8,000 blog posts about it all!

Don’t think we’re done yet. Coming tomorrow: sunset pics from Dar Mounir!

I hope you enjoyed that alliteration! Here is the picture that I couldn’t get to post.

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Going mad with the angles here once again!

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