Bab Tales

Bab or  باب, meaning gateway or door.

Outside the bab in Essaouira, an amateur, amateur photographer lies in wait:

I heard about Mogador before I landed in Africa. An older adjunct at the university where I taught in Brooklyn narrated the story of adventuring with his family through Morocco in a VW van. “Essaouira was great in those days,” he said. “It was the 70s. About five minutes after I rolled in, a kid asked me to buy him booze. You could only buy it with a foreign passport, you see. I told him sure I would if he’d score some kif for me. He did. It was that easy then.”

I heard more stories, too: supposedly, Hendrix wrote Castles Made of Sand while he was in Essaouira. This turned out to be untrue, but I liked the story for egocentric continuity; in one college apartment, my rooomates and I adorned our living room wall with paper and spent weeks working on a pointalist portrait of melting castles.

I forget sometimes, now that I’ve lived here for a few months, that I’m just a visitor. I forget that most of the American writers who loved Morocco lived here much longer than I have. I forget that grants and studying abroad and being an expat is like borrowing a library book whose pages you can climb into. And for a little while, you write yourself into those pages, effectively changing the narrative of the place, of your own life. There are options, of course: return the book, renew it, allow it to become overdue. Still, the original story belongs to someone else. Or does it?

Ultimately, Essaouira was disappointing. Likely, this is because I had so many preconceived ideas about what I would find there, most of them sourcing from the idealized orientalist perspective of beat-generation writers. But what I’ve come to love about Morocco is how bizarre and mystifying it is, how hard I have to work to get through each day, how generously and kindly my neighbors and friends treat me.

An example: a few days ago I received a pink slip under my door. Since I cannot read Arabic script, I guessed it was a notice about my water bill from the illustration in the corner. At the time, my cell phone wasn’t working and various trips to the local Maroc Telecom had resulted only in some customer service receipts and instructions to wait a few more days. When I needed my friends, I went to their houses, and like the Moroccans in my neighborhood, I called out for them until they poked their heads out the windows. The point being, I couldn’t call my landlord. So, I went to the cafe on my corner, had a conference with four or five of the regulars and the waitress until we decided my water would likely be shut off that day. It wasn’t. When I did show my landlord the notice he said, mashi mushkil. And then he left. I still have water. This is my enigmatic Morocco.

In Essaouira, I didn’t feel the spirit of cultural emersion I’ve grown so accustomed to. I watched a lady in linen scarves breeze onto a rooftop bar where the band was playing Bob Marley, and I said to my companion, “She’s one of those whispy women who believes in the magic of Morocco.” No less than five minutes later, the woman cornered me. She talked about her experience playing with “native children who couldn’t even speak French.” She went on to explain that she, “liked Morocco better than South America. There’s just so much more magic here, I guess. It’s raw. It’s untamed.”

The thing is, it’s not my right to criticize this woman. After all, I am an American charmed by Morocco. I barely speak the language. I chose to sit on a rooftop where I sipped an alcoholic beverage and listened happily to a band that played old-school reggae. And it’s not fair to say that Essaouira is overly touristic when I was only a weekend tourist myself. The truth is, I met a wonderful young woman named Charifa who told me, in Arabic, about her upcoming wedding this summer. I laughed with some ladies about my silly-sounding Arabic at the port. I went strolling and watched Moroccans buying papers of chic peas, just like they do in El Jadida and in many other Moroccan cities. I have to remind myself to look closer.

Because this trip, for me, is all about narrative. I’m writing my own and listening for new stories. And when I look closely, I see them intersecting everywhere. My favorite memory from Essaouira? Hanging out next to a bab and watching the world go by one story at a time.

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Categories: Activities, fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings, Uncategorized, wanderings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Passing through Banana Village

Outside of Agadir, on the back of a moped: I had Paul Simon stuck in my head — my pavlovian response to the open road, thanks to Graceland having been one of the few tapes (along with Legend and Forever Your Girl) that my family could count on during car trips when I was young. I was singing about ghosts and empties while we ziped toward Taghazout, a town that promised to be a little bit hippie, a little bit surfer, and a whole lot Berber.

“This is Banana Village,” my friend shouted into the wind, halfway to our destination.

“What’s a banana village?” I called back.

He didn’t answer, but I figured it out when we stopped in the middle of Aourir for a bunch:

There’s a Moroccan joke about how hard it is for tourists to pronounce the word for mint, which is na3na3. And in the joke the tourist orders atay b’na3na3 (mint tea), but because they can’t pronounce the eins, the waiter brings out banana tea. The tourist is, of course, appalled — “This is Morocco! You’re famous for your Mint Tea!” — And the waiter is equally appalled: “But you ordered atay banana!” Cue the symbols.

Beyond Aourir, the coastline upgrades from beautiful to spectacular:

And at the bottom of one of these cliffs we found a small beach cafe, perfect for enjoying our bananas…with tea, of course.

Categories: Activities, fulbright, Morocco, Uncategorized, wanderings | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Horsin’ around El Jadida

The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears – Arabian proverb

We walked along the beach toward El Jadida, hopping from one flat rock to the next and wading around the jagged edges where it was shallow. There are often horses on the pubic part of the beach in town, so I wasn’t surprised to see hoof prints in the sand.  My friend and I spied a few horses tied up near a building, and a little later, a man giving quiet commands to a beautiful brown horse in the soft part of the sand usually untouched by the surf. Suddenly, the horse knelt down, then turned over on his back like a dog rolling over. I’d never seen anything like it. The horse agilely took to his feet again and shook the grains from his muscular back. I was in awe. I didn’t know horses could do such a maneuver. What we were seeing was a special backstage preview for that night’s spectacle at the annual Salon du Cheval.

El Jadida and the surrounding Doukkala-Abda region are well known for their horses. There are something like 15,000 horses in the region, most of which are Arabian race horses. Lots of these are used locally in a very famous fantasia, or Tbourida, every August. The Salon du Cheval began in El Jadida three years ago, likely to boost tourism in the area. The King is a prominent supporter of the festival, and because of this, he came to El Jadida last Monday to kick off the fanfare. The King’s visit and the onslaught of tourists explained why I’d been watching the town get a fresh coat of paint over the last few weeks. Despite my questioning everyone I could, I didn’t find out the details of the King’s arrival until about 20 minutes before the event began. I heard later that there were special invitations and tickets, but I’m not sure.

There are two must see elements of the Salon du Cheval: the spectacle and the Tbourida. Admittedly, due to my continued inability to comprehend French and Arabic, I figured out what a Tbourida was a little too late to see it. I’ve made a personal vow to see one of these live some day.

This is not the first time I’ve lived in a town celebrated for its horse festival, which is a funny coincidence considering I only moderately enjoyed riding horses as a kid. A pathetic excuse: a fairly big horse stepped on my foot at camp the same summer my friend got bucked off and sent to the hospital. While I probably won’t be galloping around on one any time soon, I can admit that I have a lot of admiration for the animals. Siena’s Palio is – at least to my knowledge – a more popular spectacle for western tourists, and I’m here to tell you, El Jadida is a fair competitor for the attention of any horse festival fanatics (ahem: George Clooney, I’m talking to you).

While my friends and I missed the Tbourida, we did manage to catch the spectacle. And what a show it was! We got to the arena when the exhibition hall was closed, which was unfortunate due to the location – just far away from town to make finding a time-waster impossible. But that didn’t stop us. I needed to use the bathroom and thanks to a poorly guarded exhibition exit, we accidentally snuck into the exhibit hall. We wandered the stalls of resting show horses, and stumbled upon a great food court, which unlike any American event, had reasonably priced and pretty tasty food. The show itself was impressive, with everything from horse burlesque, to dressage, to trick riding, wherein folks flipped upside down, turned summersaults, and a variety of other movements I can assure you I’ll never attempt in my life. The photo quality isn’t all that great, but I think you’ll get the hint:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And, for added entertainment, there was a great performance by a Gnaoua group from Essaouria. Again, my camera isn’t really built for video, but the sounds not bad and you can make out the horse dancing. And this horse has soul.

Categories: Activities, fulbright, media, Morocco, wanderings | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Salubrious adventure in Yosemite

Salubrious: adjective meaning good for you, healthful, clean healthy air, favorable to the mind or body.

Merced grand view

Stuck in traffic, twenty minutes outside the Yosemite gates. Jon and I were playing one of those repetitive memory games where the first player says, “The Minister’s cat is an atrocious cat,” and the next repeats the phrase adding a new adjective beginning with the subsequent letter of the alphabet: “The minister’s cat is an atrocious, bilious cat.” And so on. Our cat was by and large a vile thing, with twenty-six primarily negative adjectives. Credit goes to Jon for the best, most positive, descriptor of the lot – salubrious, a word fashioned in 1547 from the Latin, salubris, of the same meaning.  And a fitting adjective for the backpacking trip on which we were about to embark. Extra points if you can figure out which other word in this post has the same root.

Ask anyone who’s been to Yosemite in the summer and they’ll tell you how lovely it is, but also that it’s crowded. Though I live in Brooklyn where all summer long the parks are packed with families and friends, barbequing and concert-going, I couldn’t understand the concept of an enormous national park overflowing with people. That is, until we got to the Valley, where we only lingered long enough to see Yosemite Falls:


Falls bw

take a dip in the Merced River:

Merced River
and salute El Capitan:

El Capitan

But venture out of the Valley, and it’s easy to find solace. Jon and I took the Porcupine Creek trail off Tioga Road, one I’d recommend to any eager, but out-of-practice backpacker, like myself. A fairly flat 5.2 mile hike through the conifers to North Dome; we encountered three campsites, and maybe ten hikers. The perfect campsite awaited us half-a-mile from our target and we pitched the tent in a spot overlooking the Valley and Half Dome.


When it was dark, the small white rocks on the ground looked like sand. There’s something about perching on a ridge between the firmament and the loam of the valley below that makes you feel very small. Earlier, we’d watched a video about Yosemite that referred to the giant boulders throughout the park as pebbles dropped in the glacier’s wake. And a lot of those rocks are much larger than me. Gazing down into the Valley, the terrain read like an infinite history book, on whose immense pages I was but a tiny pencil mark. Across the gulf, we noticed the glow of a flashlight. For a few minutes we made a game of flickering incoherent signal patterns with campers across the way. When I was in Italy, my friend Tavi had friends visit Siena from Barcelona. They didn’t speak English or Italian, but somehow with a little wine and a gorgeous piazza, we managed to communicate. This was the same sort of magic – we were sharing something inexpressible with distant strangers that we will likely never meet, transmitting nothing more than the confirmation that we exist, and that we recognize that they exist too.

Half Dome
By the time the sun rose, our tent was starting to exhibit signs of sauna-ism, and so we promptly packed up our gear, chomped some chocolate covered espresso beans and granola bars for energy and departed for the second leg of our hike, which would take us back to the car.

hike back
There are two important things I’ve neglected to tell you:

1.)    From the trailhead to North Dome, you actually descend in elevation. And though the trail out is not entirely downhill, and the trek back isn’t entirely uphill, there was about a 700 feet elevation ascent from the campsite to the car.

2.)    We forgot bug spray.

The hike back would have been delightful, except for the mosquitoes, which I will henceforth refer to as the black cloud of agony. They covered our arms like sleeves. To stop walking meant self-sacrifice. The steepest part of the entire 9-mile trip was made worse by these horrible little creatures. We encountered some hikers, who sprayed us with their DEET, but the worst of the black cloud of agony was over.

Luckily a refreshing dip in the pristine waters of Tenaya Lake offered some salubrious relief:

Lake Tenaya

More words from Lake Tahoe, BC, Oregon and Washington State in the next few weeks.

Categories: Activities, etymology, Ponderings | 1 Comment

A dusting off . . .

Pulveratricious: adjective meaning covered in dust (like this blog).


My mother always told me that the best way to learn a new landscape is by taking a drive to see where a road you haven’t been on before takes you. A staunch believer in the old-fashioned folded map, she still thinks that figuring out how to get home helps situate her wherever she’s living or visiting. GPS, of course, has taken the place of physical maps for many, making it harder to get lost. I’ve been trying to explore the California countryside by bike, armed with a paper map my mom sent me before I flew westward (and – who are we kidding? Google Maps in my pocket).  But, I was anxious to see what was further down the road than I’d been able to ride.

So, one morning last week I hopped in the car and headed for Lake Stafford, a short drive from the apartment where I’m staying. But, I quickly felt the pull of the Pacific Ocean — before long, I was winding through the California hills, following my curiosity, and eventually signs toward the lighthouse and beaches of Point Reyes National Park. The closer I got to the shore, the higher I climbed. The fog got so thick it was like driving through pulled cotton, which reminded me of the Blue Ridge Mountains back on the East Coast. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the seashore was also cattle country:


And wouldn’t you know – the only radio signal I could pick up was a country station. That’s when John Denver started crooning about my mountains and country roads on the radio — this is the sort of stuff you can’t make up, folks — and there I was driving around looking at cows and stopping for deer bounding across the road and wondering where the ocean was because the closer I got, the less I could see and the more I felt like I’d gotten myself lost in Appalachia. After passing a handful of cattle farms, I started seeing signs with warnings about the cliffs being unsafe for walking even though I hadn’t realized I was surrounded by cliffs. The pulveratricious road led me to the parking lot for the now-retired Lighthouse, but I found out the museum was closed the day I spontaneously visited. In my sleeveless sundress, I was too cold to hike up the hill, especially considering I was getting sprayed by an ocean I couldn’t see — the frigid wind was that strong.  A sign alerted me that Point Reyes is the second foggiest place in North America (!) and when that fog lifts, I should be able to see whales migrating, so you bet I’ll be back.

By the time I got back down to sea level, the fog had mostly burned off. I noticed a sign for an oyster farm that I’d missed on the way up and took a few minutes to sample their fresh oysters on the halfshell:


Of course, I couldn’t resist bringing a jar home with me, where I made fried oysters that tasted suspiciously similar to my mom’s oyster stuffing.

So maybe — technology, aside — you can’t get lost any more, after all.

Categories: Activities, Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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