Tuesday, December 29, 2009

E(at/in), P(ray/rat), L(ove/o Lovshim Na'alayim)

At Ein Prat they both show clips of Elizabeth Gilbert (author of "Eat, Pray, Love", a book I purchased second hand today since I've now completed "Brief Interviews") and walk around at night over the gravely ground of their caravan compound without shoes.

Yes, MOST of them don't wear shoes. At all. But I decided. I'm going to go anyway. I may not fit in. Mostly because I'll probably opt for shoes.

I got there when it was dark. I actually arrived in the middle of dinner -- and discovered, almost immediately, that I knew two people there. This was convinient because I a) was feeling self-concious about my Hebrew that was all coming out Arabicized, and b) needed a caravaan (trailer) to sleep in. I attended a chug, night seder and, in the morning, daf yomi and seder boker. As I find myself struggling to classify the "feel" of the place and these experiences, I think the only thing that I can say with surety is that I know that at Ein Prat I will not only face linguistic and academic challenges (in both the horizontal and vertical directions), but also emotional and physical ones. For example, there's no place to do laundry. Ugh. But they do have horses...and camels. Priorities, I see, are in order.

Kfar Adumim (~300 families) and Allon (~150 families, plus the Midrasha) are settlements located just to the northeast of Jerusalem. They will probably be included in Israeli proper in any sort of settlment deal that Israelis and Palestinians may (inchallah?) come up with. But for now, it is still a part of the "occupied West Bank". But it is also located no where near any Arab villages. There are Druze who, err, nomad (if you'll pardon the use of the word as verb) a few kilometers away, but for the most part, the area is much safer than the settlement bloc south of Jerusalem where I spent my first extended stay in Israel. It's also a very differnet type of settlement - these are not religious Zionist settlements, per say. They were built by the labor movement, most notably by Yigal Allon, one of Israel's most famous generals. Hence the name of the settlement in which I will be living (Allon). Anyway, I'll spare you the political history and just say this: I am excited to attend this institution.

Ich Bin Ein

And that's right folks, you guessed it: I was in Berlin.
It was incredible. I think I was making up for lost karma. My plane had been late, but not too late, out of Paris. It was about 11:30 when I walked out of the airport weilding just my carry-on and headed for the TXL bus to downtown Berlin. I had 7 hours to be in Berlin and I was going to make the most of it.
My bus driver was great. He was a sort of Santa Claus(e) Figure (building on our right, I gave him the chocolate St. Nick I had stuffed in my jacket pocket after being handed it by the friendly-but-heavily-accented Air Berlin flight crew (a crew that consisted of three very gay, gracious men two of whom seemed very pissy at each other...wonder what that was about).

My bus stop stops something like 300 meters from the Brandenburg Gate, and as I'm walking I am realizing just how cold it is in Berlin. My feet are starting to frost. And then I see it: Starbucks. And I think to myself: "It has been too long, dear friend, too long" (to clarify my antecedents, the "dear friend" is Starbucks) SO -- I waltz up to the friendly building and look inside: Cozy would be the word to describe this place. Lots of tourists sipping Tall Hot Apple Cider With Cinnammon and Whipped Cream and Vente Chai Tea Lattes wtih Soy Milk and Extra Foam in 30% (or howevermuch) recycled cups, while American Christmas music seranades us all. The line was so long however, that I was almost detered. I actualyl picked up my bag to leave, but then turned back around after the door opened and I felt a gush of Berlin on my face. I had a Grande (!) Non-Fat Gingerbread Latte to honor the spirit of not-being-in-a-Muslim-country (read: The Holiday) and slowly began to venture outside when I was down to about 1/3 of my Holiday Special...

And then I heard it - or rather, I did a sort of double take with my ears as I thought I hadn't heard right he first time. "Free Walking Tour of Berlin, English, Spanish, German!" No way. Turns out I had stumbled upon the meeting point of a tour that was to begin in a quarter of an hour and last 3 1/2 hours. Pay what you want. So I did -- and I had a great time. I made friends, saw Berlin, and though my socks were soaked through by the end, and my toes were more or less ice blocks, I had a fantastic day. I got to see (in no particular order): the old W. Berlin Opera House, and the Book Burning Memorial across from the University, both East and West Berliner arcitecture, as well as the remenents of the wall, an open air market (quite clean...the contrast to Morocco was, well, absurd), multiple "Einstein Kaffe"s - a seemingly popular chain of Cafes in Berlin - Checkpoint Charlie, some Bansky graffiti, Headquarters of the Luttwaffe, Hitler's Bunker and the controversial 27-million dollar holocast memorial in the middle of E. Berlin across the way from the Reichstag (Parliament) building which, incidentally, has a dome on top of it so that "the Volk" who are allowed entry to watch the proceedings will remind the autocratically-tending German ranksters who is actually in charge. Oh and I almost forgot: there's also a place called "Museum The Kennedys" next to the Starbucks from which we departed. I found the name tickling.

That's all for now - I went to Ein Prat today, the place where I (and yes, I have absolutely decided) that I will be spending my next semester. I slept over last night. More later - running out now

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Brief Interview with the Latin Quarter

My plane was supposed to leave at 6:45. I got to the airport at 4:30. Lisa came with me (so nice!). We had had a hectic morning printing stuff, returning stuff, buying stuff (a carryon bag for me!) but it was a glorious day and my bags weren't too heavy now that I'd lost all my stuff. (ha.) And then my plane was late. It was now scheduled to leave at at 9:20. I sat down and ate some nuts. I got up and perused the duty free. I went to Zara and bought a skirt for a bat mitzvah that I'm going to the first weekend in February. I peoplewatched. I had no book. No music. No computer. I was bored. And then they changed the gate number. And a mass of moroccans moved from one gate to the next. I followed, slowly. Then they changed it again. And again. And finally - at 8:45pm - they opened the doors.

It was early in the AM when I arrived at my hotel, conviniently named "Campanlie Roissy le Mesnil Amelot", a name foreigners like me are bound to forget as soon as they read it. I arrived at 3am only to find that someone else had been checked into my room. My life is a barrel of laughs.

This morning I got on a shuttle to the airport from the hotel, met a guy from the upper west side (!) goes to Vassar, had been studying abroad in Paris, and had had his flight cancelled. Then I got on a subway to Paris. I got off in the Latin Quarter and spent the morning searching for a book. The first English language bookstore I went to was closed :.. ( so I went to a second. It's famous. Its called Shakespeare & Company, and I found a book. A book I'm excited to read. By David Foster Wallace. It is, I think, his most famous. "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is now my sole form of entertainment after my internet time runs its course in exactly 7 minutes.

Anyway, on my way to the internet café, I walked into a little grocery store (think makolet/hanut type) only to hear a radio broadcast in Arabic. So, of course, I started chatting with the patroness in Arabic. Oh it was nice to be understood again. And gave me directions in arabic to this place which, wonder of wonders, contains computers with English keyboards! Alhumdililah wa rabi yichalik!

Again, no music. Sorry - you have to suffer the loss of my itunes along with me. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


My life is a strange thing. Actually its not really my life. Its my circumstances. My experiences. My changing state of being.

I've had this weird sense lately that stuff I've been wishing for has been coming true. I wished that my baggage would be lighter so I wouldn't have to pay so many overcharge fees when I get on my planes in a few days (it is totally uneconomical for me to ship stuff to either Israel or America). And then some shab (plural: shebab) stole my incredibly functional REI 65 L petite size...with all my heavy stuff inside of it. No matter that that heavy stuff consisted mostly of my macbook, its charger, and my sweatpants. Now I don't have to pay the 7lbs or so overcharge1 I also lost my ipod, its charger, my calendar, journal (you can't get that back), and...MY PASSPORT. But my bags are now lighter. And I hope that when this young shab opens my bag he will scratch his little mean head and think about how much of a favor he did me. And then he'll scratch it some more: A good deal of what was in there was in Hebrew.

And then - after I had alternated between the stages of grief and full-blown fury at myself for letting this happen (I had been asleep during the fateful event, covered my my Ouarzazate camel-hair blanket no less) - I wanted a shower. But I had no time for a shower. I spent the remaining hours to Marrakesh yelling at myself, talking (relatively) calmly to the ticket-taker-policeman on the train, and walking the length of it to make sure the bag actually wasn't there (it wasn't). And then I turned around, got back on the train (which I got to take for free...yaaayyy?), and went to Mohammadia, where I made some great friends. The Station Chief (prides himself on knowing all the important people) and the Chief of Train Police (who's role models are American boxers) became my saviors. We spent 4 hours together at the Mohammadia Police Station - a bathtub of a place where the slow flies that land on the single, albeit warm, computer scatter whenever anyone sits down or stands up. I paced some. The flies didn't like that. I don't think the Deputy Chief of Police did either. But he wasn't going to say anything, sitting there in his Mikey Mouse coat and double chin, pecking away at the keyboard with one hand in Arabic, only to print out four copies of a police report that I needed to sign, four times. And then he refused to give me one. I had to come back the next day to get a piece of paper with a stamp at a different office. There's bureaucracy and then there's Arabeaucracy. I think this was the latter.

So anyway, I had wanted a shower. I hadn't had a minute since Sat. night when I packed up my stuff to get it ready for my departure, and then left at 5am on Sunday morning to see Marrakesh (and some friends) for one last bash. And when I got back on Sunday night I was just too distraught to even consider it, getting up Monday morning and leaving for another Mohammadia/Casa run to get the stuff I needed to leave the next day. Anyway - they also stole my deodorant so life was greasy and smelly. And then it rained. No, no. It poured. I got to Casablanca after obtaining my Declaration of Loss from Chief Mickey Mouse after a good, long delay-of-train and a good deal more stress-of-Sheva (the Consulate opens magically at 1:30pm and then closes magically at 3pm...and it was 2pm)...it was bucketing. I got out of the train and ran to an overhang. And then ran to a taxi. I asked him to take me to Moulay Ismail (the street that the consulate is on) and he said no -- over there. I went over there. The taxis over there refused. They said - here. I went here. The taxi driver said: Across the street. There were no taxis across the street and by this time I was wet to the bone. Some cabbie had pity on me and stopped, but not before I had stepped in every puddle in Casablanca in order to get to his cab. Short Fessi leather jacket, long flowy (now dirty) skirt, non-water proof cheap-Paris boots. I was not prepared for this kind of shower.

Anyway, I made it to the Consulate, they were very nice (to me...a real American...not so much to the Moroccans who were standing outside in line, in the rain) and I got myself a passport that will last me a year.

Things I now regret:
Not drinking coffee at 5:30 before I got no the train.
Not putting my passport in my purse (duh).
Caring so much about my Mac. She was beautiful. But she's just stuff, like everything else.
Not writing my last Morocco post - which was going to be about growth, things I'd learned, how i changed, etc. etc. Mushy stuff. Maybe I'll write it some day. But for now...its still raining in Rabat.
Lots of other things but I can't go into them now because I have to go get myself some things from the medina before I leave this country (E.g. a carry on bag that will fit my heavy books and gifts, and, of course, deodorant).

No song today, folks, its just one of those days. And I have no itunes. B'slama.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

C-H-A-N-A-K-A-H (song #2) in the M-A-G-R-E-B

Winona Ryder drinks Manischewitz wine then spins a Dreidle with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
Lighting candles is not the same. We light with an old school oil menorah. Jacob mumbles what might be Brachot. There is no singing. I miss home Chaunkah. I feel that this must be what Christians feel like when they're not home for Christmas.

Guess who gives and receives loads of Chanukah toys? The girls from Veruca Salt and all three Beastie Boys!
So I went to another Hillulah - well, really just the meals - on the second day of Chanukah. The breakfast and lunch were both catered by - you guessed it - Baria! So of course I invited friends...I knew the food would be fantastic. And it was. Baria had been frantically cooking for this event since last week, and she went to work right after Shabbat and didn't stop (I've never seen such bags under her eyes) until Sunday night. I spent part of Saturday night and Sunday morning helping her (I mean...trying not to get in the way and be useful somehow). The hoity-toity well-to-do Casablancans Baria was anxious to impress showed up around 9, prayed until about 10 and then - finally - breakfast began! I had a lovely time, chatting with a friend who had come, not really noticing much going on around me until a group of police officers waltzed in. At first I was glad - they had invited those who protected them in to eat. But then more began to come. They took over a full table. I was a bit suspicious, sort of confused, but really thought nothing of it and continued chatting with my friend, getting up from time to time to help Baria.

Lenny Kravitz is half Jewish, Courtney Love is half too. Put them together, what a funky bad ass Jew.
When lunchtime (noonish) rolled around I came back from studying to help her again. The Casablancans didn't show up - of course - until 1:30, which made us problematize the heating of the couscous in their tajins (one of my favorite broken plurals: Tajin, pl. tawajin. Just like table: tabla, pl. tawabel. Hilarious.), but whatevs. Baria took it in stride. When the Casablancans had all settled themselves, and I prepped for my new job as waitress, in strode - and I kid you not - a platoon of military officials. Something like 30 police offers, security guards, soldiers, and other sorts of military-types all in uniform to partake of the hillulah feast. I couldn't believe it. I was totally taken aback by their absolute presumptuousness. I felt so bad for Baria I could barely speak, much less smile as I clumsily placed fish balls on their plates. The level of entitlement that they must feel to be able to do that is just shocking. But Baria pulled it off, and we fed those officers and all of their friends, brothers and whoever else they brought with them beause, as Baria said, "Ash Kayideer?" ("what can you do?").

Bob Dylan was born a Jew. Then he wasn't. But now he's back.
Depsite my state of disbelief at the chutzpah of the civil servants of Morocco, I had a wonderful time at lunch. I had no friends there, and so had to talk to everybody else. I was asked where I was from and what I was doing in Morocco every time I got to a new table (which was often), offered approximately two dozen sons or nephews or grandsons in marriage, told that I was "zweena" countless times and made lots of friends who wanted me to come visit them in Casa. A message to them: I probably won't come, but thank you so very much for the invitation.

So many Jews are in the show biz. Bruce Springsteen isn't Jewish, but my mother thinks he is.
Last night I went to a Chanukah party at the Toledanos. I don't have to tell you that the food was to die for. The best part was a sweet tajine with sugared onions, two kinds of dried apricots, and - best of all - figs. She also made three cakes. I am forever in awe of Lisette Toledano's ability to cook. Back to the Chanukah party: This was no ordinary "Lets get together and light the Menorah" (though we did that, of course, and Lisa and I were given positions of honor in front to "lead American songs" after the brachot, mizmor shir l'chanukah, and ma'oz tzur). This was a gathering of all of the American Jews (and wealthy Moroccan Jews) of Rabat. Fascinating crowd. Lisa and I were seated on either side of the American ambassador to Morocco and his wife, Minnesotan Jews, and very interesting people. I chatted with Sylvia (the ambassador's wife) the whole time. We talked about topics ranging from women's rights in Islam and how they compare to Jewish women's, to JStreet and the waxing and waning of the American Jewish left. Like I said, very interesting people. A good time was had by all, and it finally felt like Chanukah. Hopefully tonight will feel like Chanukah, too. There's another Hillulah celebration, though this time its just for the Rabbati Jews, so ti should be a more familiar crowd...and fewer marriage offers.

Have a happy happy happy happy Chanukah!
And with that, I leave you with this song, by a group called - yes - Bible Raps. I heard them first from my friend Danny at Penn. And then they came to Penn. And then I saw them again last year at Limmud. This song is called "Hanukah (Light is in the Air)", and its actually worth a listen. Quite catchy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

From Cloves-and-Ginger to Wiza and Haleeb

I bought my ticket to Marrakesh when I was in Ouarazazate. I wanted to be sure to have a spot, since I was traveling erev Eid al-Kabir, or "the Big Holiday." O dear. But when I got to the bus station at noon (my bus was scheduled for 12:30), only to be told that my bus had been canceled due to the great number of people traveling for the upcoming Eid. This made no sense to me, but then again, lots of things in Morocco don't make any sense, so I got my ticket exchanged and extracted promises from the vendor that there would, in fact, be a bus which would, in fact, to Essaouira the next morning at 8:30.

So I got on my bus the next day at 8:30. I have spent a good deal of time in the new CTM bus station in Marrakesh and the guys there know me. They remembered me from when I first traveled solo to the Hillulah way back. Actually, they more more than know me. They take an (only slightly creepy) interest. And I would say that we're friends. Sure. Friends. In any case, they were excited that I was finally on my way to Essaouira after my delay of game. So I got on the bus and sat in my (assigned) seat next to a skinny, smokey Arab man who was probably 50. He had a mustache, and his aviators closely matched mine (I had bought new ones since I "traded" the last ones. These were the Chinese classic Ray Bens). We were fast friends within the first five minutes. About an hour into the ride, the bus driver pulls over to the side of the road and announces that the bus is no good. So we turned around and went back. My Rey Bens twin looked at me down the bridge of his glasses, sighed, and rolled his eyes. The guys at the station were glad to see me.

I finally boarded ANOTHER bus and got to Essaouira around 3pm. Which was fine. I still had plenty of time before Shabbat/Eid A woman - probably in her late 40s, early 50s - from some European country (I can't remember) asked me if she could follow me to my hostel. She was feeling ill and just wanted someone to sort of hold her hand, and she saw that I spoke Arabic, so she thought I would be a good crutch. Which I was. I got us to the hostel. Which was a lovely low-budget dorm-style place run by an extremely friendly middle-aged Moroccan stoner and an super-skinny headband-sporting, Australian-Moroccan both of whom were exceptionally taken aback by my Arabic. But the women I was with wanted her own room -- and after complaining to me for a few minutes, she left. I couldn't mentally dawdle on her anymore though...Shabbat/Eid was coming, and nothing would be open in a few hours. So I went shopping. Everyone was bustling around, mostly sharpening knives. It was nice to be ignored.

My friend Amelie from Toubkal - the British girl traveling to Ghana by her lonesome - ended up at my hostel! I was thrilled to see her, obviously, and we spent the rest of our time in Essaouira together, mostly sitting and reading our books on the beach or the roof of our hostel (I finished Blood River by Tim Butcher about the Congo, and I recommend it), talking theology, and exchanging language knowledge. I can now finally count to twenty in French and ask directions. But what was really nice for me - and for her - was that one of the administrators from AmidEast, lets call him Rafiq - LIVES in Essaouira and wanted to hang out and show me around. So we walked all around with him, he showed us all of the "sights" of Essaouira, from the pier with its many boats that overlooks the island that Jimmi Hendrix used to frequent, to the long line of cannons at the bastion overlooking the sea (one had a ram chained to it...), to the Arab silver market where he introduced us to a friend of his who will, of course, give us the Magrebi price if we should find something pleasing to our eyes. So we hung out Friday afternoon, and then again Saturday night when Rafiq took us to his friend's (and mine, actually...Abd el-Hassan is another AmidEast guy) father's restaurant where we, of course, had tea and chatted. A lovely time was had by all.

Christmas is really a very apt analogy, as my dear mother pointed out. The sheep that every (EVERY) family slaughters (in the backyard, bathtub, or on the balcony) is basically the equivalent of the American Christmas tree. I saw sheep -- all rams, to commemorate the binding of Ishmael (the reading of the Bible where Isaac is the one that is slaughtered is a Judeo corruption) -- in the backs of trucks, tied down to the tops of buses, in the saddle buckets of mules (adorable and hilarious at the same time) and seated between two men on a motorcycle. And when its all over and the sheep are dead and barbecued

So I discovered another wonderful type of tea. Wiza (fresh vervaine) and frothed milk. It is delicious. I had a total of 3 in my time in Essaouira. One for each day I was there. I am already having fantasies of wiza and milk tea parties at Penn. This stuff is - and pardon neologism - BALLER.

In much more recent news (yesterday and the day before), I lost my wallet between paying for my cab and the door to my house (yeah, I don't know how one does such a thing either) AND I lost my phone between the cab and the door to my house (I REALLY don't get that one, because I had been texting a moment before...). So recent news: I feel like the worst kind of idiot. One who knows she's an idiot and there's nothing she can do about it. I think most of its due to the paper I'm writing for my "Islam and the West" class which seems to have consumed my life. And my brain. And my wallet. And my phone. On the bright? side, I didn't lose too much money, probably about 160 dirham ($20 or so), I'll get a new phone today (for free!), and Lisa's financing me until my mom can DHL me my cards. In lieu of my mood of loss and despair, a poppy pump-me-up: Gavid Degraw's I'm in Love with a Girl.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

From the Freezing Cold to Clove-and-Ginger Tea

"Skingibir" is a word I was glad I knew. It is the word for ginger in Arabic, and I remembered it when I asked what was in the tea in Marrakesh. It was phenomenal. I hope that some day I can merit to reproduce such tea. It was served to me from one of four guys on the street in a stand with a huge samivar. People - mostly men - would order a cup, and like at the orange juice stands - they would just stand there, taking their time, sipping away, and finally paying 4 dirham (45 cents) for the delicious brew.

But before I got to have my Thanksgiving tea (I had it the next day, too, which was, in fact, the American day of Appreciation), I was still tromping up Toubkal, my nose falling off, my hands icy, gripping a bottle of water I had collected from at a frozen waterfall. Marrakeshi tea was still a far-off dream.

The hike up was hard. We shimmied up boulder faces, dug our toes into gravel, lugged our tennis-shod feet up 45 degree angles -- all of which was nothing for our Super-Great Dane. In fact, when we got down, we all collapsed to eat lunch at the refuge (tomatoes, cucumber and fromage, of course), he bounded off to go valley-hopping. No joke. It took about 3 1/2 hours to climb up, but 2 to climb, or rather, ski down. We spent some time at the top. I'll include a few photos, though I don't have so many since my camera battery died. Anyway, we hiked all the way back to Imlil, grabbed our stuff, had a scream-off with the guy at the hostel because he wanted us to pay for that night, and jumped in a grand taxi (Super-Great Dane in tow) for Marrakesh...and clove-and-ginger tea.

Pictures are in opposite order:
Toubkal (like I said, I have very few), the guy who appropriated my sunglasses ("traded" me earrings for them), our friend Hassan the blanket weaver from the roof of the has-been synagogue, Krista and myself overlooking a gorge with our guide and driver from the desert, and finally: the tea.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the Milky Way to the Freezing Cold

Imlil is a cold, cold place. And our 40 dirham-a-night hostel is an even colder place. But coldest yet is the refuge at the base-camp of Jebel Toubkal at 6:30 in the morning when the sun still has not yet fully risen over the mountain.

I'm going to start with the bad and move to the good. It'll give a nice sense of progression...

We were in the mountains. Autumn actually exists up there. And there was no heat. I had to pee in the middle of the dark, cold night. I didn't realize that the Turkish bathroom (read: whole in the ground) had a lightswitch. I ate a dinner of the same food I would eat for the next two days: piece of bread, chunks of spreadable la vach kiri fromage (that's all French. I think it means something like "the smiling cow cheese"), a tomato, a cucumber, and a bit of lemon juice. And then the next morning we paid 25 dirham for a breakfast (with INSTANT coffee!!?) that we could have bought for 5. When we got to base camp we had to pay 20 dirham for blankets (!) though we desperately needed them since it was getting dark and the only source of heat in the stone refuge was a tiny, crowded little fire in the corner of the common room.

We were in the mountains. Autumn actually exists up there. The trees were turning different colors. There were natural patches of green all around us. We met three more travelers the first night who would be hiking with us. Real characters, all. One from Nor-Cal, two from England, one of whom was 40 years old and still trekking on his own, and one of whom was in the middle of an overland journey from England to Ghana through Spain, France, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso (She and I met up in Essaouira later and had a good time). So it was a party. We were all staying together and in the morning we all set of in high spirits to begin our trek to base-camp.

Well there's not much to say here. This section title is really just so I can get on to the next one. I guess I might mention the absolute cold again, oh, and the technical difficulty of getting down from the summit. I ripped my hand open tumbling down-- good thing one of the English guys had band-aids. And I did a somersault once, and came close to spraining my ankles innumerable times.

The trek was stunning. We walked along a dry river bed, refilled our water bottles (using the Californian's water pump) at a spring where we were offered, but did not purchase, coke and orange soda that had been cooling in the frigid rivulet. We walked up hills and down into valleys, stopping often, knowing that we had all day to get to the refuge. My two companions and I had decided to put all of our stuff into my bag and to switch off, so for something close to 1/3 of the time, I was carrying nothing but my water bottle. We had lunch on the way, making an assembly line for sandwiches with ingredients that I had purchased that morning on a little excursion with Monsieur California. In the last hour of our 6 hour hike, we were overtaken by two sprightly men who we later met and trekked up with the next day. One was a British-Australian pilot for EasyJet who had just graduated an intense two years of flight school in New Zealand, and the other I will introduce as "The Super-Great Dane". He is, well, Danish, but he is also so much more. The Super-Great Dane is a few things: He is smart: Going for a PhD in polisci. He is funny: Mostly his accent, but also how he talks -- it's like he can't say enough words all at once...and of course, he's got a sense of humor. And he's fit: This guy is an "Adventure Racer". This means he travels for months at a time with a team (one woman, two men), over swaths of land through any conditions (parched desert, sheer rock faces, slippery rain, crushing snow) using any means (foot, bike, canoe, crampons) to win the prize money at the end. He's been doing this for years (he's 27) and was at Toubkal practicing. He said that the people who win these things are usually in their late 30s, early 40s because they "know their bodies so well". He told us stories of hallucinations, being so tired that he had to be literally dragged along by a massive lesbian team member, and other such experiences. Anyway....I made some interesting friends.

From Camel Blankets to the Milky Way

No, not the candy bar. The actual Milky Way.

My friend Krista and I went to the desert on Sunday. We left at 9 in the morning, picked up by our guide (Yafya) and driver (Ramdan), two Berber guys wearing great swathy turbans. They took a while to warm up to us. I think it was mostly becasue they didn't really believe that we understood Arabic, which they both (thankfully) spoke. Yafya actually spoke better French than Arabic -- so he talked to Kirsta. And Ramdan, a tiny, tough, mustachioed, early-forties, spoke Darija with a strange southern accent that took me a while to get used to, but once I did, well...he didn't shut up.

We drove from Ouarzazate through through Zagora (it was a souk day -- safety pins: 1 dirham), up to Jebel Zagora to see the exceptional view of the great Draa River which stands as a testament to the great Draa valley in all its fecundity as well as the great unfinished hotel which stands as a testament to the great Arab bureaucracy. The Kasbahs (old fortresses) out there are all used by the Hollywood industry to film things like Star Wars and Gladiator, so all in all, the views were pretty, well, great. The

When we got there we had tea. And more tea. And then went for a camel ride. And then drank more tea. And then we ran up the dunes -- because they were there. And then drank more tea. And then it got dark. After dark there was nothing to do. So we ate dinner. And then drank more tea. And then Ramdan told us jokes in Arabic. Some of them were long, some were short, but jokes in Arabic don't work exactly the same way as they do in English. When a question is posed, you are actually supposed to suggest an answer. Also, sometimes they're more like long stories than jokes.

I had to pee like the devil from all of that Berber Whiskey. As it turned out, we had only made it to the "bab" (door) to the Sahara, we were sleeping next to our jeep in a tent which had a gas burner already set up for us, and there was a tent full of turkish toilets for our use, and, get this: running water. This was car camping at its best, but I didn't mind.

NUJUM ("stars")
That night we sat on the dunes and stared at the stars. I learned some of the names of the constallations...but they were in Arabic, or maybe Berber, so I don't remember any of them. The sky was smudged with other galaxies, some looking like clouds, others like fireworks. Moonrise and moonset were dramatic. For such a sliver, it cast what I saw as a silver lining across the desert. And of course, we gaped at the Milky Way.

We left at 6:30 the next morning. We got back to Ouarzazate with enough time to RUN to the Kasbah and, yes, buy a blanket from Hassan. Alhumdullilah. He wanted us to stay for some Berber Whiskey, but we had to run back (I appropriated another taxi) to barely get on our bus for Marrakesh.

From Berber Whisky to Camel Blankets

Berber Whiskey is the tea they drink in the South, and it gets stronger as you get closer to the desert. The Saharoui (from the word Sahara, which means just "desert" in Arabic) Berbers are very particular about their strong, black tea and speak Berber, not Darija, among themselves (my one word: "Yukhrim". It means "cold"). In one day in Ouarzazate we drank five seperate cups of tea, and I heard more proper FusHa than I have all year. Perhaps the hospitality has to do with a slower pace of life, the lethargic nomadic movement, the openness of the sky and abundance of the stars. The Quranic Arabic that they speak feels crumbly, like the shrines that pepper the horizon and the mountains of the anti-Atlas.

Walking through the kasbahs, visiting the co-ops with our (unpaid, and hew knew it) guide, we stumbled across the old synagogue of Ouarzazate. There are currently exactly 2 Jewish families living in the old Kasbah we were wandering, and the synagogue, of course, is more of an attraction than anything else, with fake Hebrew/Aramaic texts on display, weird-looking Hamzas on the wall where the ark probably once stood, and a huge Hannukiah who's function was explained to us by the most nervous, timid yet sweet Berber man I had yet met. His name is Hassan and he is the grandson of the last guard of the synagogue and had inherited the care of the building from his father, along with the loom or "Anwal", a word which he claims comes from the Hebrew (?), which he still toils over every day. I came to Ouarazazate - having left my travel blanket in Chefchaouen - with a mind to purchase a blanket that I could take with me for the rest of my travels/life. And I had found it. Hassan's "anwal"-made camel-hair creations were the lightest, most beautiful, multi-purpose coverttures (French!) I had ever laid eyes on. But it was Shabbat, so I told him we'd come back later.

We came back later -- at around 7pm. But Hassan wasn't there. So we asked some of the teenagers loitering outside to help us find him. One of them walked to the house of Hassan, the synagogue key-keeper. Turns out there are two Hassans. And no one knew where the second one - our one - was, so I spent the next night in the desert where it was super-"Yukhrim", wishing I had Hassan's blanket.

From Na'ana to Berber Whiskey

I'm gonna have to do this in pieces. I'll begin when I woke up.

It was 5:35. My train was at 5:45. If I didn't make this train, I might not make it to Ouarzazate by Shabbat. Krista was on the phone: "Shev, Shev, you awake?" Oh dear.

It took a full 10 seconds for me to realize what was going on. When I finally did, I snapped up, threw on a different shirt, grabbed my pre-packed pack, leaving my toothbrush on the bedstand where it lay, and bolted. I waddle-ran down the street, cursing the fact that I live near Sale where no petit and only grand taxis go. I decided I didn't care - I would pay 50 dirham to get to the train station for a grand taxi. I flagged one down, stepped in a deep puddle to get to it, threw in my pack, shivered in the early morning chill, and forcefully whispered "ana zirbana"...I'm in a hurry. The driver got it - and floored the accelerator, shifting gears every couple of seconds. I made it to the train station in a record 6 minutes. I hit my head on the way out of the car, gripping 20 dirhams, hoping that would be enough, but prepared to pay more for appropriating a grand taxi meant to fit six passengers for just one person, and throwing him off his set track (grand taxis function essentially as very small buses). And then I was again shocked by the sweetness of Moroccan taxi drivers. He refused payment, and when I forced him to take the 20 he went to get me change. He gave me 10 back. I was stunned. And I made my train. But I didn't get to brush my teeth until I got to Ouarzazate...before Shabbat.

We transferred to a bus in Marrakesh after 4 1/2 hours on the train. It was another 5 or so to Ouarzazate, through the Atlas mountains, with one stop along the way. We walked around, finding a tourists office (!), getting a grand taxi to our budget hotel, had a lovely night on the roof of the hotel, under blankets, learning to play the tamtams (one very small bongo attached to a bigger one), eating mandarins and drinking Berber Whiskey.