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Essaouira, bold as love

June 28, 2016

Exhausted from the nonstop shopping and solicitation in Marrakech, we decided to trek out to the coastal Essaouira. Essaouira reputed for its beaches, its windsurfing, and its vague but enduring connection to Jimi Hendrix, who supposedly wrote Castles Made of Sand from Axis: Bold as Love about his several-months long stay in the city (it was actually written years before).


The road to Essaouira

The goal was relaxation and, well, some of the same shopping we were escaping in Marrakech—Essaouira has some of the finer silver sellers in the country. But Essaouira is a resort town, and thus known for its beaches, and because beaches mean relaxation, beach it we did.


Natalia and Sergio on the Essaouira coast

Note that tourist season doesn’t begin until June and doesn’t hit its peak until August. Note, too, that this may be the reason why the local authorities saw no reason to actually clean the beach. There were not one but two rings of trash on the main stretch of beach. The one further back appeared to be the older ring, accumulating like sediment over many high tides and many weeks, while the lower ring was the trash of the day.

This wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the beach was also very shallow. Which means that when the tide started coming in, it came in quick. We would be lying down, tanning and reading, some 20 feet from the tideline, when within a minute the water would start creeping towards us with whatever detritus was riding on top. We had to move three times to keep from getting covered in the foamy sludge that was only maybe sea protein. On our way out, we almost got whacked by rocks a kid with a backpack was pelting at three other bathing-suited kids hiding by walls a few feet away from us. Not your typical beach resort—Morocco keeps it interesting.

In any event, the city is gorgeous and the beach still worth it in spite of the trash. We lunched over fish recommended by the garrulous and dentally-unselfconscious parking lot owner Aziz, who spent much of the 15 minutes on the way to the place telling us how lucky we were to be led to this restaurant and insisting on his magnanimous unwillingness to be rewarded for the favor. (The restaurant was pretty good. I ate sablefish and fended off a stray cat watching me eat outside our window.)


Essaouira as the sun sets

After the beach and a productive bout of jewelry haggling, we watched the sunset on a whitewashed rooftop restaurant with live music largely catering to the French tourists—the band included a keytar and played mostly French anthem rock.

And then, it was goodbye Essaouira. Back on our way to Marrakech. Shortly thereafter on the plane home to the United States. I bid Morocco farewell, then rolled my way into the Marrakech Menera Airport about 25 pounds heavier with Moroccan sweets, dishes, bags, chess sets, belts, hats, spices, kettles, djellaba beads, drums, onyx camels…

Mad Marrakech

June 28, 2016

Marrakech was a nonstop whirlwind of sights and sounds. A nonstop whirlwind of shopping, to boot. A shortlist of my purchases and haggle successes:

  • Leather belt: 50 dirhams ($5), haggled down from 80 ($8).
  • Small chess set: 100 ($10) dirhams, haggled down from 180 ($18).
  • Serving bowls from Fes: 450 ($45) for two, haggled down from 800 ($80). These bowls (ultimately a wedding gift) was my crown haggling achievement. It took walking out the door and getting the guy to beg me to accept my original offer halfway down a medina block. Expert haggling tip: always be ready to walk away.
  • Large chess set: 600 ($60) dirhams, haggled down from 900 ($90). I wasn’t planning to spend more than 450 ($45) on this one, but I ultimately really wanted it as a birthday present for myself, which the guy undoubtedly recognized. The expert way to haggle, as I eventually gathered, is to start at around 1/3-2/5 of the original price, and bargain back up to around 50%, so I was a ways off. I did get the added thrill, however, of riding on the back of a motorbike through the medina to get to an ATM machine because I didn’t have enough money to buy the set on hand. Those motorbikers have skill.
  • $10 of worth of sweets to share back home
  • Another $10 worth of sweets to share back home: The first place didn’t feel authentic enough so I was going to buy $3 worth from a scrappier looking pastry stall in the medina. The guy kept filling up my box long after I waved for him to stop. I ended up forking over another 100 dirhams.
  • A small camelskin hand drum: 80 dirhams ($8). I think I just gave him the 80 dirhams at this point because I was tired of haggling.

My companions Sergio, Natalia, and Trevor made off with a leather soccer ball, several leather bags, a leather backpack, and several small purses.

Beyond the shopping, our apartment was maybe itself the star attraction. A beautiful, enormous palace-riad featured on an episode of House Hunters, it contained a huge, bright courtyard and an area on the roof for sunbathing, plus more mosaics and metalwork than you could shake a stick at. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the slightest if storks hung around the house languidly flapping their wings while some servant fed you grapes. We didn’t have servants or storks so we mostly just played whist while drinking wine purchased at the airport. Which feels slightly edgy in a Muslim country.

And then there was the Jemaa el-Fna, the night courtyard which goes crazy with performers, dancing snakes, fire breathers, and, above all, dudes trying to sell you juice. There is seriously a ton of juice on the Jemaa. 4 dirhams ($0.40) for an orange juice or grapefruit juice and 10 ($1) for a mixed juice, which could be any combination of oranges, grapefruits, peaches, bananas, avocados, pineapple, apples, pears, kiwis… All you have to do is ask. And pay 10 dirhams. Or don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. If you have 10 dirhams, you’ll eventually have juice, like it or not. And a few packs of tissues too. You’ll see.

The Jemaa always appeared to be dying down or puttering awake when we were there, so I have no pictures of giant cobras around my neck, sadly.

Other highlights:

  • The Jardin Marjorelle, the creation of Yves St. Laurent, an Art Deco garden full of lush greenery, fat succulents, vivid blue, yellow, green and red ceramic pots, and secluded corners in the shade. The Berber museum included inside the gardens nicely exceeded our expectations—full of interesting, diverse and well-labelled artifacts of Berber life, from pottery to tools to jewelry to clothes. Unlike some anthropological/archaeological exhibits they don’t err on the side of showing too much of the same monotonous stuff (how many arrowheads can you really look at?), and it probably helped that Berber stuff is genuinely pretty fun—geometric decorative motifs meets sartorial flamboyance and a heckuva lot of cloth.
  • Sneaking into the pool of a local apartment complex with the collusion of our rental car place. We felt guilty about 10 minutes in when we realized we were very much the only Western foreigners in the bunch.
  • The Hammam De L’Orient, my first hammam. For those who don’t know, a hammam is basically the closest a human being can get to shedding a skin like a snake. You get lathered with thick, exfoliating mud, scrubbed down and rinsed, several times over, with large buckets of water being poured over your head repeatedly (maybe the most I’ve ever enjoyed myself while feeling like I was drowning). You then get to lie down a bunch, and ultimately get a massage. It’s pretty great.

Now, without further ado, food porn a la Marrakech, with captions:

The Spanish intermission

June 28, 2016

I flew from Fes (Morocco) to Barcelona on a Tuesday and back to Marrakech (Morocco) on the following Monday. Yeah, yeah, I’ve been asked already. It made sense for the airfare, alright?

Barcelona was a very living-there kind of experience, probably because we were staying with people who actually, well, lived there. We ate tapas, biked around the various neighborhoods (in San Francisco style, my first question to Gaby in each new neighborhood was, “Is it being gentrified?”), ate gelato, ate more tapas, hung out at local bars and BSed with local people. We all got haircuts from two hip German ladies who owned their own salon and went to European music festivals in their free time. I bonded about rock climbing with Alejandra, a friend of Gaby and Natalia’s, and joined her at a climbing party at a gym owned by Chris Sharma, one of the world’s top climbers and definitely the chillest famous person I’ve ever shaken the hand of.

And then there was Cadaques. If Barcelona was our slumbrous staycation in a gorgeous foreign city, Cadaques was our all-play-and-no-work full-throttle weekend chillout destination. Eat, sleep, repeat.

We did do plenty in Cadaques. Befitting the light hedonism of the weekend, it makes sense to group them by the senses:

Things seen:

  • One fish, two fish: My first scuba trip abroad abroad after recently getting my scuba certification in Monterey. The gruff dive-shop owner looked at us like we were wearing tutus on our heads when we came in on Saturday morning asking to dive, which I later discovered was his default expression with other human beings. The rest of the crew, however, was friendly and helpful. I was paired with Jenna, a college student working the boat for the summer, who patiently gestured to me to stick my hands out in front of me and calmly gain buoyancy as I flailed my arms around attempting to not destroy all the coral around me. By the end of it I was a buoyant enough diver to play kelp pong with her hovering a few feet above the coral beds.

    Some highlights included several schools of variously sized fish, a smattering of starfish on a vertical wall covered in gorgeous red vines, coral and kelp, a tiny school of nearly a hundred little translucent ‘skeleton fish’ (or at least that was the name I made up for them), and these little sea straws with beautiful red sea anemone bouquets that would suck themselves back into the straw as you moved your finger towards it. Unfortunately I’m not yet buoyant enough to attempt underwater pictures.
  • Dali’s house: Salvador Dali had his studio in Cadaques from 1930 to 1982. His house, while interesting, is somewhat disappointing in its homey bourgeoisness—no melting beds or sentient toilets. There were a handful of good curiosities, including a small cage where Dali kept a pet cricket, and his working areas and art supply storage areas are interesting in their own right, though unfortunately both roped off. His backyard fountain waterworks had more of quirky interest, including some Warholesque Firellini tire advertisements and a fountain surrounded by toreadors.
  • My first 5-bounce rock skip: Tom is a good hand at rock skipping so while we waited for admission to Dali’s house I apprenticed under him in the ways of skipping rocks. I’d never done more than 1 before. Expert tip: it’s all about getting low and parallel to the water.
  • Storm clouds coming in off the pier near Dali’s house: Dali had good taste in living locations. His house was surrounded by hills with winding embankment walls and a large beautiful cove, one of the most inviting snorkel locations I’d ever seen. As Sergio and Natalia dropped off Gaby and Tom at the bus to return to Barcelona, I paddled around looking at little mountains of sea plants, transparent little globular creatures who bubbled around on the seafloor, and the occasional bunch of chasable fish. As I pulled myself back onto the pier the skies were turning a dramatic black and the winds were freezing my cojones off as I ran back and forth for warmth.
  • The statue of liberty with two flames: ‘Nuff said.


Things heard:

  • Dali’s crazy egg room: The star attraction of Dali’s house was a perfectly spherical room that produced a bizarre acoustic illusion—standing in the center of the room, it sounded like the people meters away on the other end of the room were talking directly into your ear.
  • Gangsta’s paradise on the radio: My first time hearing this song in years—if you don’t count the time I heard it on the radio a week before in Cambridge.
  • Cadaques dancing music: A large band of about 20 people were playing in Cadaques’s central square on Sunday, accompanied by people performing a slow repetitive dance holding hands in a circle and moving back and forth. A kind of dance you might accidentally fall asleep doing. If you’ve ever seen the 1970’s television show The Prisoner, it’s like you wandered onto the set while the town band was playing.
  • Church bells every morning and a large thunking noise which might have been a cannonball on Sunday: They really wanted people up for church.
  • More cannonballs: We happened to be in our Airbnb when Barcelona beat Seville in the Copa del Rey soccer finals. Cannonballs appear to be Cadaques’s equivalent of fireworks.

Things eaten:

  • Shrimp carpaccio and razor clams (La Sirena) – These long, thin, fingerlike clams as was shrimp carpaccio were delicious and weird enough for me to devote a whole post to them, neither of which I’d never encountered.
  • Catalan stew (La Sirena) – This rich, thick, spice-and-buttery stew included three kinds of flaky white fish, all of which were tasty in their own way and almost indistinguishable by sight. The large prawns in the mix topped it off nicely.
  • Roasted chicken and potatoes – A simple meal, but my God was it tasty. The roasted chicken was dripping with delicious grease and melt-in-your-mouth skin, while the potatoes were done in South American-style (according to Natalia, half the workers in Cadaques were Bolivian), halved and themselves succulent with oil. A half a cup of mayo and I was a happy sailor.
  • Cream puffs – After eating the aforementioned roasted chicken meal and following it up with these fresh and delicious local cream puffs, all of which on a beautiful sunny patio overlooking the whitewashed houses and blue waters of Cadaques, you could’ve killed me right there and I would’ve had no regrets.
  • A brunch plate of salmon, Spanish ham, nectarines, and cheese – Couldn’t resist a little morning splurge.


  • Compartir – Compartir was born of former employees of El Bulli, which pioneered much of microgastronomy. From appetizers of salmon roe, crab, avocado and apricot cream plus cod croquettes with honey foam to entrees of catalan-style monkfish and a kitchen-sink lobster looking like something out of a Picasso painting, this meal easily lived up to expectations. And it ended with hazelnut soufflé. I’ll say that again: hazelnut soufflé.


Calle Jaume Giralt

June 27, 2016

The week before I got a slip of paper from Natalia in Gatwick.

“Pssst!” Her hand waved backwards in beckoning, and she held up her plane ticket stub. “The address of Natalia’s sister’s place in Barcelona.” The paper was passed across a few lines of the queue before I pocketed it and saw my friends disappear through customs.

I continued to read my tattered copy of the New Yorker, but worried for a moment about the piece of paper—would I lose it before getting to Barcelona? Would I be able to enunciate the address to the cab driver, was it clear enough? I could get the address from Natalia again by WhatsApp, but that was assuming I had access to wifi at that crucial hypothetical moment when I realize I no longer have the address. Travel has a tendency to set you back at least a decade in technology—with wifi around, my phone was its normal old self; otherwise, I could reliably make and receive calls (though only to other numbers that look like mine), receive and send text messages (with about a 50% success rate), and use apps that don’t require internet, like, I don’t know, the Calculator app.

Needless to say, the simple solution of writing down the address somewhere else didn’t cross my mind. I stuck it in my passport, then transferred it to another book, then to a side pocket of a piece of luggage that I only used for things I wouldn’t look at for days or weeks.


On the way out of Fes

It would’ve been a better story had I lost it. But at 12:30 a.m., when the RyanAir flight touched down at Barcelona-El Prat, it was there, in the reliable side pocket, in its perfect one-week-ago condition. I didn’t find it soon enough to fill out my customs declaration sheet so I made up the “Address in Spain” field by picking a street at random from Google Maps, then scribbling the address so it was half-illegible anyway. I did this with about 75% of the customs forms I filled out.

To make the story even more boring, the taxi driver figured out the address within a minute, though not before grabbing Natalia’s slip out of my hands as I tried to enunciate “Jowwmeh” and “Heerault” with whatever Spanish accent I could muster. I was impressed he found it, too, given Calle Jaume Giralt was a narrow side alley that barely even looks like a street, as it’s largely taken up by a long sandy park where kids played soccer. Though, then again, the driver had Google Maps, or the Spanish equivalent. So it’s probably not that impressive.

I rang the doorbell and introduced myself with clever self-satisfaction as “Senor Hhherminario” when I heard Natalia’s voice—before realizing that Natalia’s sister probably also has Natalia’s voice and no idea who Mr. Germinario is: “Who?” I sheepishly replied, “Jesse”.

Over cheese, croissants, and jugo de naranja, along with Moroccan dates and walnuts I brought from Fes, I met Gaby (Natalia’s sister) and Tom (Gaby’s husband). We went out to get Estrella Damm from the hawkers on a nearby square, buying them from older lady who had a five beers on a six-pack ring and a bunch of singletons in a green plastic bag.

After a certain hour, every decently sized square or public area in Barcelona will have people selling beers, invariably Estrella Damm or San Miguel. These hawkers, often immigrants, have some kind of arrangement that allows them to get papers into the country after working for a while. Tom, a social documentarian who runs his own production company, has tried to learn more about this benign-but-mysterious racket, but even hawkers he has made friends with remain tightlipped.


Gaudi’s Caso Batllo by night

It was walking back that I noticed the night air in Barcelona—full of the same tungsten yellow that saturated Fes, but there was a magnificent openness that diffused the light at the same time, making it less claustrophobic and more cinematic, atmospheric. Few cities I’ve been to make you notice the sky in the way Barcelona does—the open plazas letting the sky in, the magnificent cathedrals and buildings pointing upwards towards the heavens. It feels both new and ancient at the same time, where everything is beautiful but beautiful without being superficial.

Bhalil, city of caves

June 27, 2016

My first day in Fes I had intended to take a bus to Chefchaouen, a medina city painted entirely blue by the Jewish inhabitants of the 15th century and beyond. But the national CTM buses had sold out that trip and, unwilling to risk the vagaries and the added travel time of the local buses, I decided to just focus on Fes and the surroundings.

Luckily I found a prime day trip—Bhalil, with barely any information about it in my Rough Guides book, was, however, indicated as a top “Staff writers’ highlight” on a tucked away page of the book. The spare two paragraphs devoted to Bhalil mentioned a Mohammed Chraibi: “You’re unlikely to be in Bhalil for long before attracting the attention of this amicable ‘official guide’.” No joke. It took roughly a second after arriving in the town before ‘Ahmed’ flashed me a mouth full of crooked teeth and shouted, “Hello! Welcome to Bhalil!” with his arms raised in front of him.


The charming Mr. Chraibi teaches me how to heat a hammam

Ahmed was like a Moroccan Roberto Benigni, squirrel-like in his explosive energy, volume, and animatedness. Bhalil, for context, boosts two ubiquitous points of interest. First, the djellaba-bead-weaving women of the town, who sit on the streets in flowing robes and caps on their heads carefully threading the fabricky beads, used for Moroccan ceremonial kaftans and jewelry.

Second, the cave dwellings, burrowed into the side of the hill Bhalil covers. While appearing from the outside to be regular dwellings with regular doors and exterior walls, well over half the homes in Bhalil are caves. These caves provide insulation for warmth during the winter and respite from the heat during the summer for the residents and, in separate dwellings, their animals.

Invariably, upon seeing either of these two sights—the women or the caves—Ahmed would grow as giddy as a child, stab his finger in the appropriate direction, and yell, “Look, look, du people live in du caves!” “Look, look, du women work on du djellaba beads!” “Look, look, du animals also live in du caves!” These exclamations consisted of about 75% of Ahmed’s commentary during the tour.

Partway through the trip, we visited one of the cave dwellings, owned by a family friendly with Ahmed. I was offered a circle of flat bread, some olive oil, and, of course, mint tea. The cave included a tiny kitchen separated by a small curtain, a wide area for couches under the main cave ceiling, a television set, and some cabinets. Three young boys and a girl were watching the TV when I came in.

I felt like a bit of a Western intruder. Here I was coming into a family’s home and sitting there awkwardly flipping my Rough Guide while these Moroccan kids looked at me with curiosity on the other side of the table. They, for their part, just found me curious. I randomly punctuated the silence with unnecessary questions to Ahmed and the mother hosting us in this cave-room (“Where does the electricity from the cave come from? How did you paint the cave?”), or ate more bread even though I wasn’t hungry for more bread (though the olive oil, local to the region, was particularly good and spicy).

Eventually, the kids grew used to me being there and started to jostle to get my attention. One boy was particularly excited by my pen, which he stared at like it was the one single thing that would make him happiest in the entire world. I had another one on me so I gave it to him, over the protests of Ahmed, and he proceeded to run around the room brandishing the pen in every conceivable pose. Amused, I asked him to give me a photo pose with the pen in return for my gift. He immediately lost his inspiration.


“What, this old thing?”

And then, of course, djellaba beads (the mint tea doesn’t come out unless there’s a sale shortly behind, even in Bhalil). I was glad to buy a few from these guys—20 dirhams for a bunch ($2) is nothing considering the amount of work spent on each of these. Following the tour I got a small tutorial on how the djellaba thread is made (there are lines strung all along the city alleys where the women spin fresh batches of it) and how that thread is then used for the beads themselves.

Ahmed, who clearly relishes his role as the local tour guide, was insistent on showing me more spots—first in Bhalil, then in Sefrou, a nearby town—even as I told him I had 15 minutes before I had to leave for the airport, then 5, then none, then I-really-need-to-get-out-of-here-Ahmed. I let him take me through the mellah, which refers to the old Jewish quarters in virtually every Moroccan city, but had to stop him short when he tried to take me on a half an hour trek to see a fountain in the hills: “But it is a wonderful fountain!” I took leave of my garrulous guide and headed back to Fes, eager to get myself a last meal of camel burger before boarding a plane for Barcelona.

Fes (when you’ve finished shopping)

June 27, 2016

My tour guide-slash-personal salesperson managed to take me to a handful of places that were actual attractions of Fes over the course of the tour. A few highlights:

Madrasa Bou Inania

A madrasa is both an educational institute for young muslims and a congregational mosque. This particular madrasa dates back to 1356 and boasts some of the most impressive architecture and internal design in Fes, with its classrooms, courtyards, and areas for prayer.

The Bab Boujloud

This beautiful central gate into the medina(translated as “the blue gate”) served as my main anchor point any time I got hopelessly lost (often) in my two days in the Fes medina. The minaret of the Madrasa Bou Inania can be seen to the left.


The medina

The medina, or market, was the main draw of Fes, with its constant bustle of people, animals and endless attempts to draw your attention to some shop or another. You could wander through these streets all day.

The palace and the mellah

The Dar el-Makhzen palace is the official residence of the king while in Fes (each major city has their own equivalent). While off-limits to general access, we could appreciate the ornate details of its exterior up close. The mellah, or Jewish quarter of the city, included balconies—a notable architectural feature, since traditional Muslim-owned Moroccan houses barely had windows to ensure women were not able to be seen by outside onlookers.

Overlooking Fes

I had to get my 250 dirhams worth after my tour guide upsold me into a car trip around the city. It was worth it to get a birds eye vista of this sprawling, centuries-old medina.

The Kairaouine mosque and university

The pottery tour

Not all the tours my tour guide took me on were blatantly designed to get me to buy stuff. This pottery tour, in particular, was diverse, interesting and well worth the $15 worth of pottery I subsequently bought.


The tanneries were well worth the smell—definitely one of the more interesting artisanal operations in Fes. The white pools are pigeon dung, used to separate the skins from the fur of the animal, while the colored pools are dyes for the leather.


Last but not least, the rugs. No trip to Morocco is complete without someone trying to sell you a few thousand dollars worth of rugs. They are, however, beautiful to appreciate from an appropriate distance away from the shop proprietor.

Oh, and did I mention pastilla?

The medina tour or: how I learned to stop worrying and love to buy

June 27, 2016

The tour guide, a perpetually monotone, poker-faced type with a tweed brown jacket, gave me the first taste of true Moroccan salesmanship—the sneaky upsell. “We start by taking a tour of the city walls. Then we go to the medina.” I agreed, sounded good. “We go to my car now.” Halfway to his car, he turns to me and says, “City walls are 250 dirhams, medina is 400 dirhams.”(~$25 and $40.) Of course, Abdul only told me about the medina tour. I grudgingly agreed. He registered no reaction to my visible annoyance, which annoyed me even more. I was already wishing I had opted for the Rough Guides self-tour.

This wouldn’t be his last sleight of hand. My first words to him were, “I’m not interested in shopping.” “OK, no problem.” Our first destination, after the city walls, was a pottery store. Prefaced, of course, by a tour of the store intended to make it seem like an attraction, rather than just a store. Sort of. Sometimes.

I’ll admit, the pottery tour was genuinely interesting. Pottery has a number of stages involved—spinning, painting, firing, or, in the case of mosaics, cutting and assemblage of the patterns. But as the day went on, these ‘store tours’ became more ‘store’ and less ‘tour’. And I became more annoyed each time, especially with my tour guide, who prefaced every tour with a grandiloquent, “And now, you will go on a tour to see how traditional Morocco <pottery, rugs, leather, argan oil, Berber rugs…> are made.”

Pottery tour


o   Total tour time: 15 minutes. Interesting. A bunch of pots, but interesting.

o   Sales experience: A dude brought me into a room full of pottery and said, “Buy what you want, don’t buy if you don’t want.”

o   Purchases: 150 dirhams ($15) for two earthenware spice bowls, haggled down from 180 dirhams.

Tanneries tour


o   Total tour time: 10 minutes. Tanneries smell horrible, a function of the pigeon shit used to separate the fur from the skin. In spite of that, you can’t leave Morocco without checking out their beehive-like pools of white dung and colored leather dyes, their hangers full of pre-dye skin, their huge barrel washer (“like a giant washing machine”), and their dozens of men traversing the whole thing smoking cigarettes.

o   Sale experience: A mild-mannered man guided me into the shop through two floors of clothes. Each time I asked for the exit, he would delicately direct me to another room with more clothes. Eventually I figured out what he was doing and left.

o   Purchases: A small black belt, 50 dirhams ($5), haggled down from 50 dirhams.

Rug tour


o   Total tour time: 5 minutes. Mostly consisting of two women pulling threads into a rug. The tour guide delivered tidbits of the rug making process with pretended awe, “Do you know it takes two women a full year to make a rug??”

o   Sale experience: A barrel-chested barrel of a man named Hassan greeted me with a booming voice and orders to his staff to make me a pot of mint tea (a common tactic in Moroccan shops). He proceeded to tell me all about the differences between Moroccan and Berber rugs, how reliable and upstanding the government certification process is for Fasian rugs, how I didn’t need to buy any rugs if I didn’t want to, and how I should buy at least three rugs (“One for your parents, one for yourself, and one to sell”). He repeated the three rugs line at least five times. His sales associates then proceeded to unfurl rug after rug in front of me for my appreciation, after which Hassan invited me to, in royal style, wave away or grant consideration to each one.

o   Purchases: Though Hassan all but assured me I would become a millionaire many times over by shipping myself out as many rugs as I could buy and selling them for ten times the price, I purchased none. Upon refusing them all, Hassan looked at me like I had spit on him.

Rug tour #2


o   Total tour time: 2 minutes. Mostly consisted of watching a dude move a rug loom around.

o   Sales experience: A harried salesman showed me some fabrics and grunted “Berber scarfs, good. Berber handkerchiefs, good. Buy for your momma,” then got sucked into a vortex of clearly more lucrative German tourists.

o   Purchases: None

Argan oil and spice tour

o   Total tour time: 1 minute. The saleswoman pointed to a woman sitting on the ground grinding what looked like a nut on what looked like an orange reamer and said, “Look, this is how you make argan oil.” She waved her hands around a little, in that way you do when pretending to care.

o   Sales experience: The saleswoman proceeded to show me spice after spice in spite of my repeated refusals, “No, I don’t want any argan oil. No, I don’t want any coriander. No, I don’t want any ground coriander. No, I don’t want any coriander-infused argan oil.” After each refusal she would look at me like I was a complete idiot. I had a suspicion that this lady was the cruelest salesperson in Fes.

Purchases: I bought $15 worth of saffron just to escape.

Rug tour #3

o   Total tour time: 0 minutes. The tour basically consisted of a random man greeting my tour guide on the street and convincing him to bring me into his shop to sell me rugs. And then the inevitable “And now, you will go on a tour to see how…”

o  Sales experience: I told the guy five times that I didn’t want any rugs while he stubbornly monologued the standard Moroccan rapport-script: “Where are you from? Ah, you are American? Ah, I have a cousin in New York. America is a very great place. You must need carpets for your big American home. We will give you very good price.” I had to dodge a guy attempting to force a glass of mint tea into my hand. As I left, the owner and my guide joked out loud that I must not have enough money to buy Moroccan rugs.

Purchases: None, and I briefly considered using my previously purchased belt to strangle my guide.

Fes, Act 1

June 27, 2016

I left Cambridge for Fes on a Sunday night. After driving into town in a taxi cab I found myself greeted by Abdul Kareem, the proprietor of the gorgeous Dar Hafsa riad hotel. “Like Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” he laughed, grinning a wide mouthed grin. He had salt and pepper grey hair and large dark rings under his eyes, but his grin and animated, often smiling eyes gave him a younger look.

He had on a black Yankees cap. It was unclear if that meant anything to him. When I asked him if he was a baseball fan, he stared at me with his mouth open for about a second and a half, then smiled and said “Yes, yes,” which turned out to be his response every time he didn’t hear or didn’t understand what I was saying.

Standing about a full head below me, he would grab my arm or tap me with the back of his hand when he wanted to accentuate a point or get my attention, which turned out to be a Moroccan thing generally.  Sometimes he would stop completely, in the middle of the endless medina foot traffic: “You’re only spending two days in Fes? No, no, not enough time! Fes is a big, big city! I’ll tell you what, my friend. You need a tour guide. I will set it up for you tomorrow.” The Moroccan merchant class has a skillful way of presenting choices as already decided realities.

I’ve never been much of a fan of tour guides, but at his insistence I opted for the guide. In a few hours, I would be touring Fes’s millennia-old medina. I indulged in a midnight meal of lamb tagine with prunes and a half an hour of Moroccan channel-surfing before sleep.

The highlight of Moroccan TV: a music video mostly consisting of a camel bobbing along the desert in rhythm with the music.


Dar Hafsa, my Fes palace riad

Cambridge, a whirlwind tour

June 27, 2016

Cambridge was easily the most impressive college campus I’d ever been on. This is an unfair competition, given they have nearly a millennia on anyone else. Highlights of Cambridge included:

  • Kings College, where Jack is pursuing his PhD in philosophy, has a campus that makes Harvard look like Disney Land. I learned about the rigid landscape hierarchy—that only full professors are allowed to walk on the grass in Kings Cottage, while the rest of the students and teachers (not to mention tourists) must keep to the stone paths that border them.

Jack and Ida in Emma College


  • The chapel at Kings College, built by the Catholic Henry VI but now used as an Anglican Church. We sat in on a mass that appeared to be a first communion for a group of besuited children.
  • St. Johns College, similar in style to Kings College, boasts a few notable architectural gems like the Bridge of Sighs and, according to Jack, some of the more arrogant Cambridgers in the university. For those unfamiliar with Cambridge, each college is part of Cambridge University as a whole and share the same majors, departments, etc—the colleges themselves are social and residential units where you spend much of your time, but educationally it’s largely a distinction without a difference.


St. Johns

  • Kings College dining hall, more of an atmospheric curiosity than a culinary draw, had cheap cafeteria food lavishly accompanied by a dining area with the tallest ceilings and lushest tapestries I’ve ever seen in a school cafeteria.
  • Walking around the River Cam – Jack, a rower, regaled me with some good anecdotes about the annual rowing event which the town goes nuts over, rowing being their top local sport. There is one particularly ill-mannered swan who perches himself along one stretch of the river and is a particular bane to the coxswain of any given boat that passes too close by it.

The River Cam and the Bridge of Sighs

  • Emmanuel College – ‘Emma’ for short, this beautiful Cambridge college incongruously boasted a bounce house in the middle of 16th century building, set up to help undergraduates to relax in the midst of tripos, the final examinations that qualify students to receive their degrees.



The Emma College bounce house

Hackney Wick

June 27, 2016

I met with Jack and Ida later that night, joining them for dinner at the place of a friend of theirs who served a fantastic meal of stuffed zucchini with red sauce as dinner table conversation ping-ponged around the upcoming political scene in the United States and the UK (Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, the Brexit), an upcoming baby (I’ll say no more), my own trip and general life story (given I was the most unfamiliar face at the table), and the upcoming play we were about to see.

The play, Wishbone, put on by Jack and Ida’s friend Laura, began with four women standing in the room, swaying in sync with one another as the audience took their seats, staring straight ahead of themselves. This scene continued for a while after the lights went down and the audience went silent, until one-by-one the women let out staccato, birdlike cries. The play then began to pass through an bewitching array of curious, primal-feeling scenes, with emotions and wonder on pure display—a woman rubbing a pair of stones together and discussing with deep seriousness the center of the earth; a slow descent of each of the women towards the floor in varied states of incapacitation through anxiety or bodily stress; a heightening, chaining improvisation of places and things “put under other things”; a moving crescendo of worshipful chant around the pair of stones.

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Production art for Wishbone

A fascinating show in good company in a part of London that was full of this kind of interesting art and exploration—Hackney Wick, which immediately reminded me of West Oakland with its gorgeous street art and warehouse aesthetic.

We left for Cambridge later that night. In our hunger along the road I got to experience the diversity of British convenience store snack options, including Nik Naks, a type of puffed fry Jack described as being like fiery hot cheetos (my guilty pleasure snack food back home), though it tasted more like a bland-ish curry, and a bag of chips that was indistinguishable in taste and logo from Lays except for the name, “Walkers”. Other unexplored highlights include shrimp scampi chips and the sheer number of snacks flavored, with no adjectival embellishment, “Bacon”.